The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] ‘I Am Infected’: Surveil and punish

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : April 7, 2021 - 05:30

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A few days ago, many people around the world witnessed a video of a Black American man brutally attacking a tiny Asian woman, stamping her face with his foot repeatedly in broad daylight on the streets of New York. Watching this graphic video, we were distressed and appalled at this outrageous event, which is a part of increasing violence against Asian Americans in the United States.

These recent attacks have not only damaged the image of America throughout Asia, but have revived tensions between Asian and Black communities at a time of great political urgency, when the protests associated with Black Lives Matter last year saw an unprecedented multiracial coalition among minority communities. It is understandable that many Black Americans are angry and grieving because many have lost their jobs or family members due to COVID-19. Nevertheless, that can never be a justification to assault Asians with blind hatred and vengeance. As Pope Francis said, “Racism, too, is a virus worse than the coronavirus.”

We say that the world has changed completely since COVID-19, dividing the eras into “before the coronavirus and after the coronavirus.” We worry that we will never go back to normalcy and those good old days again. We also worry that racial prejudice against Asians may continue even after the pandemic ends. Well, it might and it might not.

The other day, I decided to venture out after a yearlong stay at home. Two weeks had passed since I took my second dose of the Moderna vaccine, and thus I was supposed to have immunity. First, I went to BJ’s Wholesale Club in Lebanon, New Hampshire. A year had passed since I last visited, and yet all the staff at the Club were still very friendly and helpful. As I was looking for something, a male staff member immediately stopped unloading and took me to the faraway shelf so I could find it. The cashier, too, was extremely nice and friendly.

Then I dropped by Co-op Food Store, where the aisles were much narrower than BJ’s. Whenever I bumped into other shoppers, they smiled at me brightly, saying, “Sorry” or “Excuse me.” A staff member even asked me if I wanted his help and volunteered to take me to the aisle where I could find the thing I wanted. At the Co-op, you have to return your shopping cart to the inside of the store after unloading your grocery bags into the trunk of your car. Since I parked my car far away from the entrance, returning the cart was tedious and time-consuming. Suddenly, a woman passing by approached me and kindly asked, “Do you want me to return the cart for you?” She made my day.

Notwithstanding that pleasant experience, COVID-19 has left a negative impact on our lives, such as normalizing the abnormal. For example, the pandemic has allowed some countries to restrict the freedom of their people, put them under surveillance and invade people’s privacy. In those countries, the press, too, discloses the personal information of the infected without discretion. Moreover, people condemn, discriminate and exclude the infected at workplaces and in the communities. Obviously, those things are abnormal. In the pandemic era, however, we have gotten used to it and now think of it as the “new normal.”

Recently, I came across an intriguing book titled “I Am Infected” by professor Soh Chang-rok at Korea University, who is the first South Korean member of the UN Human Rights Committee monitoring civil and political rights. In his insightful book, Soh vividly renders and boldly exposes how vulnerable human rights are in the vortex of the pandemic.

During his recent visit to the UN in New York City, Soh found himself infected with the coronavirus. Upon returning to Seoul, he rushed to the hospital where the authorities confined him in an insulated room with a surveillance camera. Meanwhile, the press labeled him “Seongbuk-gu #13.” Being referred to by the number 13, he lost his humanity and identity. At the same time, the government traced his whereabouts and contacts, and the municipal office posted his personal information on its website. In the book, there are intriguing subtitles such as “Your government knows what you did yesterday” or “A country of surveillance cameras and black boxes.” In his mesmerizing book, Soh warned us that the authorities could constantly watch, monitor and videotape us using the excuse of the pandemic.

The author also criticizes our social milieu that blames the victim. When you are a COVID-19 patient in Korea, the news will spread. Then people will shun you, hate you and even punish you, making you a social pariah. In many other countries, however, the information is sealed and there is no hostility toward the infected.

Regrettably, COVID-19 has deteriorated democracy, individual freedoms and human rights. Nevertheless, when the global ordeal is finally over, we hope we can restore those precious things we have lost amid the turbulent era of the pandemic.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.