As the number of coronavirus cases in South Korea exceeded 6,000 this week, there was a rise, too, in complaints about information overload in the form of emergency virus text alerts that have included embarrassing revelations about infected people’s private lives.
Health authorities and district offices across the country are sending “safety guidance texts” from early morning to late at night, reminding people to wash their hands thoroughly and not to touch their faces with unwashed hands.
But for many people, the texts – while intended as a public health service – are fuelling social stigma and in some cases, leading to speculation over extra-marital affairs.
Much of the criticism centres on messages that trace the movements of people who have recently been diagnosed with the virus.
“A woman in her 60s has just tested positive,” reads a typical text, “Click on the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalised,” it adds. Clicking on the link takes the user to the website of a district office that lists the places the patient had visited before testing positive.
This avalanche of information has included some embarrassing revelations.
One involved a man in his 50s who returned from Wuhan province in China – where the outbreak started – with his 30-year-old secretary. Both were infected in the early days of the epidemic.
In another case, reported by the BBC, one alert said a man contracted the virus from an instructor during a sexual harassment class.
As South Korean media pored over their movements, citizens looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination as their private lives were laid bare, leading to speculation that they were having an affair and that the secretary had undergone plastic surgery.
In another text that captured people’s imagination, a woman in her 60s reportedly went to work as normal, attended a wedding and had lunch at a hotel buffet restaurant with friends, despite having been recently hospitalised with injuries she said she had sustained in a car accident.
The woman, who then tested positive for Covid-19, was accused by South Korean internet users of committing insurance fraud – allegations she denied publicly after TV reporters managed to track her down.
A man in his 30s who tested positive became the target of online taunts about his sexual behaviour after authorities said in a text alert that they had been unable to track his movements after he arrived at Seoul’s main railway station from the capital’s airport.
Since the area near the station is known for prostitution, the man, known only by his case number, was repeatedly accused on online forums of paying for sex. In fact, he had simply eaten at a restaurant in the neighbourhood, health authorities said, blaming the earlier confusion over his whereabouts on a technical glitch.
The text alerts are also affecting shops and restaurants that infected people visited before their diagnosis was confirmed. While the texts do not identify the patients – other than giving their gender, age range and assigning them a case number – they do reveal the names of shops and restaurants they visited before they were tested.
While restaurants that had been named closed temporarily for fumigation, they say the their association with the virus could put them out of business.
Fraudsters are now playing on those fears. A man claiming to be infected with Covid-19 called several restaurants in the Mapo district of Seoul warning that their business would suffer if he told health authorities he had eaten there, and demanded money in return for his silence. Police are investigating the case but have yet to locate the suspect.
“I find myself eavesdropping on customers’ conversations these days, just in case they turn out to be a cult member or a fraudster,” said Kim Na-hee, the owner of a restaurant in the capital. Most of South Korea’s cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect.
Kim added: “I thought I only had to protect my health, but now I think there are other things more scary than the coronavirus.”