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Public anxiety grows as Korean expats rush home


Public concerns are growing over a continued influx of COVID-19 cases from abroad, as more and more Koreans living overseas rush home amid increasing uncertainties in the wake of the global novel coronavirus crisis.

Despite a stabilizing trend in new infections here, the country has seen an increasing number of imported cases in the past weeks, posing a threat to the country’s fight to stem the spread of the infectious virus.

Kim Ji-young, a student doing her master’s degree at a university in the US, hurried home from the US months earlier than she had initially planned, as schools, dormitories and shops were closed and coronavirus cases spiked higher and higher daily.

“In the US, it is difficult to get tested for the coronavirus, especially for the young, and we assume we could not be able to get treatment easily,” Kim said. “At least in Korea you can get tested and properly treated with ease. And I have my family here too.”

When the school semester officially ends in May in the US, more people are likely to seek to come back to Korea, she added.

As countries impose lockdowns and international flights are canceled, the government is sending charter planes or helping arrange temporary flights to help Koreans stranded around the world return home.

Some 220 Koreans, including foreign students and tourists, returned home by a charter flight from India on Monday morning. Some 260 Koreans in New Zealand are set to arrive here via a charter flight on Tuesday.

Flights tickets are covered by passengers.

So far, some 6,619 people from 43 countries have returned home with the government’s help amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to an official from the Foreign Ministry.

“We expect the number of imported cases from abroad to decrease as time goes by, but it remains unclear how much it will decline,” said Kim Gang-lip, vice health and welfare minister, at a briefing Sunday, underscoring the importance of returnees from overseas to strictly implement self-quarantine.

Koreans’ rush home, however, may come at a hefty price: overwhelming health officials’ monitoring of those under self-quarantine around the clock and forcing medical professionals to treat an increasing number of confirmed patients.

Since the government imposed a mandatory self-quarantine rule on all arrivals starting Wednesday, the number of those under self-quarantine at their homes or state-monitored facilities totaled 37,000 as of Saturday. About 30,000 of them had arrived to Korea from abroad.

For the past two weeks, 51 percent of new infections were imported or linked to imported cases, mostly from Europe and the Americas, according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Out of the country’s total 10,284 cases, the number of imported cases stood at 769 as of Monday, with 92.2 percent of them being Korean nationals. The country has seen between 32 to 40 new infections coming from abroad since April 1.

As part of efforts to reduce risks of community spread stemming from imported cases, the government strengthened punishments for those violating self-quarantine rules starting Sunday, including imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to 10 million won ($8,100).

Cases of violating the government’s quarantine measures, however, continue to be reported, leading some Koreans to call for tougher measures.

Last week, three Vietnamese students studying in Korea were caught violating their self-quarantine without phones to avoid scrutiny from the government. A Korean student studying in the US came under fire after taking a fever reducer, lying to quarantine officials about it and later testing positive. A student studying in the US and her mother were also blamed for traveling on Jeju Island despite having symptoms of virus infection, as some recent examples.

Some are voicing discomfort about Koreans rushing back home.

“In terms of Koreans, we should accept them into the country, but they must abide by the government’s instructions when they self-quarantine and should be punished more heavily – being arrested, for example,” said a 58-year-old woman, who only gave her surname Cho.

If the coronavirus outbreak were to be protracted, foreigners, however, should be banned from entry, she said.

“We should have banned foreigners from entering Korea a long time ago, starting with Chinese,” she said, referring to early February when Korea first reported cases linked to Wuhan, where the coronavirus is presumed to have originated.

Instead of imposing an entry ban, the government has chosen to keep the border open for everyone -- Koreans and foreigners alike -- as long as they agree to the government’s toughened quarantine rules, which require all entrants to complete a 14-day quarantine.

Health authorities maintain that there is no need for a border closure because about 9 in 10 people arriving in Korea from abroad are Korean nationals. They also expect the 14-day mandatory self-quarantine to effectively block nonessential visits by foreigners.

Kim Min-jo, 31, said that a border closure would be too excessive, but raised concerns about who would pay for monitoring those under self-quarantine, including testing them and treating them.

“Quarantine process should get tighter and the government should make sure those arriving from abroad follow the rules,” he said. “But I am quite afraid about how the government could cope with the expenses (without imposing an entry ban) and I should end up paying more taxes.”