SEOUL: In the South Korean city of Asan this week, residents held angry protests decrying their government’s decision to quarantine South Koreans evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the growing outbreak of a new coronavirus, at a facility in their community.
Among the many placards at the protest -- hung between pieces of heavy construction equipment to block the road to the facilities -- was one that read “Asan citizens first.”
Protest signs are meant to convey simple, snappy messages and don’t have room for much context. But it was clear from this slogan that the people of Asan felt that their government should put them first, that they shouldn’t have to forego any of their interests, or risk their own health, to accommodate fellow citizens fleeing the hub of a public health crisis.
READ: Evacuations from Wuhan: What are the risks?
In explaining their opposition, locals have said that the government picked Asan, and another city called Jincheon, as the quarantine sites without consulting them first. They have also pointed out that the quarantine facilities are in densely populated areas, where many children live.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Social scientists have dubbed this way of thinking NIMBYism, with NIMBY being the acronym for “not in my backyard,” a phenomenon whereby people in a certain location resist some change to the place that they live on no grounds other than that the proposed change, while being necessary or at least beneficial in a general sense for the wider society, isn’t good for their specific community or locality.
Pretty much everyone can agree that a country must have garbage dumps and sewage treatment facilities, yet no one wants those facilities near where they live because of the adverse effects on property values and quality of life.
LISTEN: Wuhan virus – The WHO, Singapore's infectious diseases authority and a global outbreak expert answer your burning questions
The locals in Asan were not arguing that their fellow South Koreans should be banned from returning to their country or that the national government had no responsibility to help get them out of Wuhan. They simply, for entirely selfish reasons, want them sent elsewhere.
Curiously absent from this display of fiery dissent in Asan was any suggestion of what to do with the roughly 700 returnees. No South Korean city was likely to raise its hand and volunteer to host hundreds of people who could have been exposed to the deadly, poorly understood virus at this stage of the outbreak, when the number of cases is rising daily and no one knows how bad the outbreak could get.
One might have expected that at this stage, cities would be willing to step forward and contribute to the state’s handling of the public health crisis, to shoulder risk and burden as a way of working toward a solution.
A NEW FACE OF SOCIETY
This case contrasts sharply with a heart-warming story of South Korean cooperation and sacrifice not too long ago. In 1998, as the country was reeling from the Asian Financial Crisis and the national government was billions of dollars in debt, citizens lined up to donate gold to help the nation climb out of debt.
READ: Commentary: Wuhan virus – how prepared is your company? What gets green, amber and red rankings
That story was upheld as demonstration of a deep social bond, of citizens willing to, at a time of economic disaster, give up personal assets to help out the country.
Would anything like that happen today? South Koreans have long lamented that that same crisis in the late 1990s changed their country forever, introducing neoliberal economics, eroding the country’s previous model of jobs for life and family-like companies.
The crisis paved the way for a more competitive, individualistic South Korea where nothing is guaranteed and average citizens, like those who protested in Asan this week, see their society’s elites as corrupt and out of touch.
FOR THE WIDER GOOD
South Korea is a democracy, and democracies require a peculiar balancing of individual rights and collective goals.
Citizens have a role to play in picking their leaders and agitating for policy decisions, but there are limits on what they can achieve. At some point, all citizens are asked to grit their teeth and accept things they may not like.
In democracies, anyone who fulfils a duty to their state that requires they risk their own life -- career soldiers, police officers, emergency workers -- does so with their own consent.
The preamble to South Korea’s constitution states, the provision of “equal opportunities to every person and provide for the fullest development of individual capabilities” as a goal.
Unfortunately there is a contradiction in that, as at some point, particular individuals must sacrifice for collective well-being.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
As the first chartered flight carrying 368 Koreans from Wuhan landed at the Gimpo International Airport on Friday (Jan 31) morning amidst continued anger among some residents in Asan and Jincheon, I couldn’t help but ponder about how this could messy situation could have been averted or resolved.
A potentially effective solution during a dispute like this is a show of leadership, for someone in a position of responsibility to set an example for the concerned citizens of Asan by showing that they are willing to take on some of the burden. Or for someone to show by example – which in this case would have been one of the cities putting up its hands to say they would welcome their evacuated fellow citizens to be quarantined in their neighbourhood.
On the other hand, the government has acted more decisively than the last time an epidemic hit the nation – the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 – by putting into quarantine and issuing medical assistance to infected persons early while also announcing that it will be drawing from an emergency fund to contain the virus as it aims to calm residents and investors.
But it can still do better.
Specifically, in this case of quarantining the evacuated Koreans, it ought to clearly communicate that the authorities are working actively to contain the corona virus outbreak, and has learned lessons about the need for strict quarantine from the MERS experience, when the government garnered criticism for failing to quarantine people who had been exposed to the virus.
READ: Commentary: SARS was scary, but the experience was invaluable in shaping our Wuhan virus response
For now, the protests appear to have simmered down as the residents of Asan reportedly came to a decision to back down after an hour-long meeting on Friday. But with more than 300 Koreans left to be evacuated from Wuhan, the unrest may yet get new life in the coming days.
This makes the communication from government an ongoing effort to ease citizens’ worries.
Political leadership handbooks also point to the importance of empathy, of leaders demonstrating that they care how their citizens feel. Asan citizens might feel more at ease if President Moon Jae-in came to their community to walk the city streets and listen to people’s concerns.
At the very least, that would allow Moon’s government to send the key message: We’re all in this together.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.