Scapegoating, discrimination and the coronavirus. Are we forgetting the real culprit?

Despite the stringent regulations and efforts being implemented by the SA Government, could a precautionary alarm have been sounded earlier as Zimbabwe has done? Although no cases have been confirmed in Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Tuesday declared a state of national disaster and banned gatherings of more than 100 people, in anticipation of an outbreak.

Criticism regarding inaction and delayed responses has been aimed at a number of leaders of countries where COVID-19 has spread.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has been criticized for casting blame on a local church, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, as a means to divert attention away from the governments initial inaction and furthermore to protect his presidency amid upcoming elections.

By Lee Hana
President Moon Jae-in on March 19

In an article for the New Yorker, Suki Kim reported that three days after China’s lockdown on Wuhan, on January 26th, the Korean Medical Association (K.M.A.) urged the government to temporarily bar entry to all travelers arriving from mainland China. The government did not heed that warning, Kim reported.

North Korea and Russia were quick to close their borders with China, however, South Korea did not. China is South Korea’s largest tourism source, and visitors from China make up about third of the seventeen million tourists who visit the country annually. Dr. Choi Jae-wook, professor of Preventive Medicine at Koryo University and the chairman of the K.M.A. is quoted in Kim’s article as saying,

“In South Korea, there were fewer than ten infected back then and they had all come through China. At the time, there were seventy thousand people coming from China per day. Sure, they can check for any sign of fever at the airport, but many show no symptoms, and some get sick only afterward. The foremost priority for any infectious disease is to stop contagion, and the most basic solution in this case was a restriction.”

Despite the warning from the K.M.A. President Moon did not restrict travel from China and said that the virus would “disappear before long,” and urged citizens to continue their lives as normal.

The number of COVID-19 cases increased rapidly, many of which were linked to a member of Shincheonji church who unknowingly infected fellow congregants during a worship service. Raphael Rashid, in an article for the New York Times, describes how the church became a lightning rod for the public’s wrath and a ready outlet for longstanding prejudice.

The medical community noted that the COVID-19 cases had already proliferated before the mass infection of members of Shincheonji but despite this, the church became the main scapegoat in the center of a political game. President Moon’s opponents vowed to make his response to the coronavirus a central issue of the upcoming midterm-election campaign but when the opportunity arose to court the bloc vote of fundamentalist Protestants, for whom combating Shincheonji is high on the agenda, they were quick to follow suit.

The mass infections attracted the general attention of Shincheonji Church and media were quick to sensationalize the situation. Unfortunately, several media reports relied on low-level Internet sources and interviews with fundamentalist Christians who held well-documented prejudice against the church due to its rapid growth in the past decade at the expense of the politically influential conservative and fundamentalist Christian churches in Korea.

Shincheonji church stated on its website that human rights violation issues in relation to the coronavirus has exceeded 7,000 cases, ranging from termination of employment to severe domestic violence. In a press conference held by the church, Chairman of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Man Hee Lee, expressed his deep regret for the church’s involvement in the spread of COVID-19, going onto his knees and apologizing with a low bow.

In regards to the 31st patient confirmed to have COVID-19, I sincerely apologize as the chairman of Shincheonji. It was not intentional, but many confirmed cases have occurred. We made our utmost efforts, but we could not prevent them all. We express an apology to all citizens.

The discrimination against the members of Shincheonji caught the eye of international human rights watch dogs such as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who stated they were concerned by reports that Shincheonji church members are being blamed for the spread of the Coronavirus and urged the South Korean government to condemn scapegoating and to respect religious freedom as it responds to the outbreak.

In such a testing time as the world is currently facing, it is important that we do not add to the suffering of the coronavirus through scapegoating and discrimination. Yes, mistakes are going to happen and there will be difficult decisions leaders will have to make, weighing what is best for their people. Let’s not turn on each other but instead all do our part to work together to combat the virus. After all, the real culprit is not the people who have fallen victim to the virus. But the virus itself.