Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
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10 Apr 2020 : The Right to Freedom of Movement versus the Right to Privacy

A question: How much of human freedom and human rights can people sacrifice to cope with a pandemic?

As COVID-19 spreads all over the world, every country has been responding to the virus by using a different set of measures that, they believe, works best for their nation. Nobody knows which approach is the best and, particularly, for what criteria.

The public has also been playing an important role in coping with the virus. They not only comply with the government's COVID-19 measures, which is important for it to be effective, but also ‘demand’ their government to introduce a particular measure.

Interestingly, people, if necessary, even sacrifice their human rights to handle the virus. However, they seem to restrict their freedom differently. For example, Britons have been sacrificing their right to freedom of movement, but South Koreans have been giving up their right to privacy. More interestingly, people in these countries, in general, seem to agree with imposing legal action on breaches of their COVID-19 rules.

Britons have been in lockdown for almost three weeks, and this measure seems to be extended further. People are allowed to go out only for very limited purposes: shopping for essential groceries as infrequently as possible, medical needs (to provide care or to help a vulnerable person), one form of exercise (such as walking, running, or cycling) a day within their residential area, and travel to work (if absolutely necessary).

Non-essential trips such as visiting friends or families and going for holidays have been banned (so, no Easter Holiday), and non-essential shops, such as pubs, cinemas, restaurants, gyms and cafes, have been closed (excluding grocery stores and pharmacies).

The UK police have been exercising power to enforce people to comply with lockdown rules. They encourage them to stay indoors by imposing fines for the breaches. On April 9th, the chief constable of Northamptonshire Police also warned that people who flout the lockdown rules may be arrested.

Although there have been a few breaches of the lockdown, people in the UK seem to have complied well with the rules.

However, restriction of human rights in a pandemic has a different look in South Korea. The South Korean government has not locked down cities. People have the freedom to go to public places such as coffee shops, restaurants, gyms and workplaces, although they are highly recommended to practice social distancing. However, this is not the case for people who have been abroad recently, or those who have come in contact with COVID 19 cases. They are asked to self-isolate by the government, and monitored closely. Anyone who flouts self-isolation rules will face legal action. So, I can say that people in Korea, in general, have been enjoying the right to free movement.

However, South Koreans have been restricting their right to privacy to cope with the pandemic.

The public is advised to report to the local office of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for testing, if they start showing any symptoms of the virus. If the person is tested positive, the local CDC office traces route of the movement of the confirmed case over the past two weeks. They identify the people who came in contact with the case to prevent the spread of the infection. The local CDC collects these data not only by interviewing the case, but also using the details from credit card usage, mobile phone, transportation card and CCTVs.

The South Korean government has established a platform in which governmental agencies and private companies (that deal with the data of a person’s  location such as credit card companies, mobile phone companies), share the individuals’ personal data with each other, to help local CDC offices to identify route of the movement and contacts of COVID-19 case.

South Korean local governments provide their residents with the information of a confirmed case, collected by these processes. This is to prevent people from visiting these places till they are cleaned. They also encourage the people to contact their local CDC office to have a test for the virus, in case they think they are one of the unrevealed contacts.

The information includes the area where the case lives in, age group, gender, the person’s route of movement, and the test results of those who came in contact with the positive case. All the information (excluding the name and home address of the case) is open to the public via text messages and governments’ web page as soon as the new information is received.

Interestingly, South Koreans do not seem to feel much afflicted (though, may be uncomfortable) to share their privacy with the public. They also seem to be fine with the fact that the government has access to their personal information in this pandemic situation.

Moreover, South Koreans seem to consider that violation of people’s privacy is inevitable to slow the spread of the virus. People, who tested positive for the virus, tend to cooperate with the government by providing every information of their movement. And the public harshly blames people, uncooperative in the investigation, viewing them as selfish and irresponsible, and asks the government to impose legal penalties on them.

I do not know for sure, why South Koreans are putting up with the infringement on their right to privacy to cope with this pandemic, rather than putting pressure on the South Korean government to implement a national lockdown.

Also, I do not know for sure why people in the UK are enduring this lockdown, giving significant power to the police and mourning boredom inside, rather than asking the UK government to utilise private information to trace the spread of the virus, which may also be effective to decrease the number of COIVD-19 cases and deaths.

I presume that Britons value the right to privacy rather than freedom to movement; whereas South Koreans may be more sensitive to freedom to movement than sharing their privacy with the public.

However, as a person who had spent most of her life in South Korea, I also presume that their lessons from the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreak in South Korea made Koreans believe that public health comes first to individuals’ privacy during national emergency.

Well, I do not know for sure why I chose to think about this topic to escape from boredom in my cosy but small room. It was not fun...

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