Is Mandatory Testing for Foreigners Xenophobic?

The new controversial testing policy in South Korea has rubbed many privileged people the wrong way.

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

coworkers and I stepped out of a taxi and walked up to the large white tent they’d set up in the middle of the parking lot. A man in a hazmat suit with a plexiglass face-shield asked us to sanitize our hands and put on gloves before filling out the paperwork. We each filled in our names, numbers, and where we worked. At the bottom, there was a section of boxes to mark your symptoms: cough, fever, loss of smell, etc. I had none of these. Neither had my coworkers. We hadn’t been out with someone who tested positive nor visited a place where an infected person had recently been. No, we were told to write “NO” next to the boxes, were led over to a chair, and had Q-tips shoved up our noses because we are strangers in a strange land.

When public sentiment starts to turn on foreigners in the time of COVID, it can be tempting to blame them — to satisfy the general public by forcing outsider minorities to get tested and confirm whether they are the problem or not. Last week, the South Korean government succumbed to this temptation. By March 22nd, I and the other 85,000 foreign workers in the Gyeonggi Province of South Korea must get a COVID-19 test or face a fine of up to 3 million won. This was implemented after 275 foreign workers tested positive for the virus.

could be expected, given a short deadline on a 3 million won fine, foreigners weren’t thrilled. Complaints have ranged from lamentations over long-waits and poor communication, to outright accusations of xenophobia and racism. Many foreigners, like those who have lived in Korea for many years, see no sense in the mandate. Others believe it is a good idea to get a test but find the extreme deadline and severe punishment to be absurd. Then there are those who have gone so far as to petition the president to revoke the mandate. They were not subtle in their proclamation: “Discrimantion Against Foreign Workers in Gyeonggi-do”. Yes, they misspelled discrimination. In their defense, they had to dash out the door before the COVID testing center closed two hours for lunch. It doesn’t pull any punches. The first line states, “The mandate stating that all foreigners, whether they are symptomatic or not, working in Gyeonggi-do are required to be tested for Covid by March 22nd is discriminatory and xenophobic.”

They point out that, “No such blanket mandate has been made for Korean nationals living and/or working in Gyeonggi-do.” And identify a few valid concerns such as:

“This blanket mandate for foreigners is dangerous, as many who show no signs of having Covid must go to Covid testing sites with people who potentially are infected.”

And that,

“Some foreigners are also a high risk in regards to Covid(ex. asthma, auto-immune disorder) and should not be exposed or put in a position of exposure.”

This petition has spread around social media, Reddit, and into a number of my group chats.

The petition is correct in wanting to protect high-risk individuals. However, I do not believe the Government would refuse to make accommodations for those people. I also agree with the petition that this new mandate is xenophobic. I spend the majority of my time locked in the box of my apartment Zooming loved ones. I have not ventured beyond my neighborhood in over a year now. I have watched as Korean acquaintances traipsed around the country throughout the holidays visiting family, ignoring government guidelines, and passed numerous groups of Koreans wandering the streets arm-in-arm with more than the allowed number of compatriots. Why should I, in my little box of isolated despair, have to go get sticks shoved up my nose?

However, I have not signed it.

he reason, to me, is simple. I am a guest in this country. I have watched as other guests I know spend their weekends going out drinking and throwing secret parties. I have seen them blatantly posting their adventures on Instagram. Beyond anecdotal evidence, TBSeFM News pointed out that, “More than 1,700 foreign nationals have tested positive for COVID-19 this year, with Gyeonggi Province accounting for 47 percent, followed by Seoul at 28 percent.” Whether it is ethical or not, there are some very real reasons for the Korean government to be responding this way.

The majority of the outrage over this policy is coming from a very particular subset of foreign workers: westerners. The migrant factory workers who also need to get tested (for free) are not hopping onto Facebook social clubs reserved for scheduling intramural soccer matches to whine about xenophobia. They aren’t posting long-winded lamentations about having to wait in line, or how much they feel violated. No, they are worried about their livelihoods and are glad to have a job. The ones crying foul are the same folks who enjoy discrimination when it trends their way. In a place where looking a certain way, from certain countries, gets you a lot of advantages, it is cringy to watch how quickly they turn sour and self-righteous when the tables gently tilt in the other direction.

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time.

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