Seoul ends mandatory Covid-19 testing for foreigners after outcry

Seoul and neighbouring Gyeonggi Province are among a number of local governments that have ordered all foreign workers to be tested, drawing criticism. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Authorities in the South Korean capital of Seoul will scrap a controversial order for all foreign workers to be tested for coronavirus, they said on Friday (March 19), after an outcry sparked complaints by embassies and a human rights probe.

The move came after the headquarters of the nation's pandemic control effort said it had asked the city to withdraw the order and improve testing policies to eliminate discrimination or rights violations. "The request is to prevent anti-Covid-19 efforts from causing any discrimination or human rights violations against citizens and foreign nationals," the headquarters said in a statement. City authorities still recommended testing for both foreign and Korean workers in "high-risk" workplaces, however.

The reversal came as the National Human Rights Commission confirmed it was investigating if the policies of several local governments for all foreign workers to be tested were discriminatory.

Seoul and the neighbouring province of Gyeonggi are among the local government bodies to have ordered such tests, drawing criticism from South Korean lawmakers, university officials, and foreign ambassadors.

Health officials have defended the measures as necessary to blunt a surge in infections among foreign residents, and that the rules are not discriminatory because testing had also been mandated for people who were linked to outbreaks in churches, nightclubs and other spots.

Gyeonggi, where the order is in force until Monday, said it had dropped a separate requirement for negative tests by foreigners being hired for jobs. Health officials had defended the measures as necessary to blunt a surge in infections among foreign residents, saying they were not discriminatory as tests had also been ordered for those linked to outbreaks in churches, nightclubs, and elsewhere.

On Friday the US embassy said it had raised concerns with senior authorities and was strongly urging fair and equitable treatment of all its citizens. The independent human rights commission said it launched an investigation after several complaints, such as one from the British ambassador, who said the rules were "not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective".

Commission chairman Choi Young-ae said she was concerned that the policies could lead to discrimination, especially by using demeaning language towards undocumented workers.

"This act has made the word 'foreigners' look like 'those suspected of diagnosis for Covid' or 'criminals who have done something illegal,' which led to hate comments online," she said in a statement.

The local governments have said that immigration status would not be checked at the testing centres, and that personal data gathered would only be used for medical purposes.

Seoul National University, one of South Korea's most prestigious universities, is considering seeking an injunction against the policy if Seoul doesn't drop it, Associate Professor Koo Min-gyo, dean of student affairs, told Reuters.

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