The idea is to let the public know, via a central website and regional text messages, if they may have crossed paths with carriers, whose names are not made public.
But where some people perceive good intentions, others see Big Brother.
The extensive tracking initiative has raised questions about how to reconcile public health protection and privacy — a growing point of tension in many places around the world as the pandemic spreads.
Others nations in Asia quickly adopted their own version of South Korea’s infection mapping.
Singapore’s government hosts a website that includes the age, gender and occupation of all its coronavirus patients — and where they traveled recently.
Japan’s Health Ministry has maintained caution about the release of personal travel history and other details, but some Japanese regions have made public information about patients’ movements, including to gyms, restaurants and hospitals.
But challenges are brewing in South Korea.
In southern city of Busan, a coronavirus patient whose personal travel history was released filed an appeal about privacy violations to the National Human Rights Commission, the nation’s rights watchdog agency.
The commission appeared to back the complaint. In a statement earlier this week, it called the public disclosures of personal movements “beyond necessity.”
People want more
In response, South Korean officials note the obvious: These are not normal times. South Korea has nearly 8,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and at least 66 deaths.
“It is true that public interests tend to be emphasized more than human rights of individuals when dealing with diseases that can infect others,” said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last week.
Jeong said the agency will review the protocols to find the right “balance” between health measures and individual privacy.
But, for many, the travel log is a hit the way it is — and they want even more.
“The phone is ringing off the hook with nervous citizens demanding that more is shared about confirmed virus cases in a faster manner,” said Park Wyul-bohk, head of the disaster team in Cheonan, about 50 miles south of Seoul with about 100 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19.
A Cheonan resident launched a petition to South Korean President Moon Jae-in complaining of the “nerve-racking delay” in the public release of additional virus carrier travel logs. The petition drew more than 22,000 supporters.
The names on the travel logs are kept confidential. But there are possibly awkward revelations about the personal lives of patients — whose identities could be easily figured out by family and friends.
'Love hotels' on the list
In central city of Daejeon, more than 1 million phones received an alert saying a virus carrier visited “Magic Coin Karaoke in Jayang-dong at midnight on Feb. 20.”
In Cheonan, a text alert to residents showed that an infected person visited “Imperial Foot Massage at 13:46 on Feb. 24.”
The digital diaries of infected people grew to cover all kinds of places: bars, karaoke clubs and short-stay “love hotels.”
One woman, who asked to be identified only with her surname Seo out of privacy concerns, said she has stopped going to a bar popular with gay women.
“If I unknowingly contract the virus . . . that record will be released to the whole country,” Seo said. “It’s as daunting as being outed in front of the public.”
At the start, the South Korean disease-control center was alone with the details: lists of confirmed cases, sex, age and pre-quarantine movements. It wasn’t long before private coders saw the potential for audience views. Several apps have turned the data into comprehensive digital maps.
One of the most visited, coronamap.site developed by a South Korean college student, has drawn more than 14 million hits since the outbreak.
South Korea has been preparing for this moment. Its strategies have root in a 2015 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in South Korea, which was the biggest outside of Saudi Arabia.
The government in Seoul was criticized for holding back data about the hospitals treating MERS patients. South Korea later revised its laws to grant greater access to personal information of infected people. Now, anyone found guilty of lying about details considered necessary for infection containment can be subject to a maximum of two years in prison.
And even a Chinese drone
Nothing, though, compares to the surveillance reach in China, where the coronavirus first flared late last year in Hubei province. Its mass surveillance system allows authorities to pin down infected people’s whereabouts to the minute.
Last month, the English-language edition of the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, released video on Twitter showing drones calling out instructions as they hover above people disobeying health protocols, such as wearing a mask.
“Yes, Auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” a voice booms over an elderly Chinese woman, according to the Global Times’s English translation. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask.”
It’s unclear how much of South Korea’s tracking has lessened the number of possible infections. A certainty though, is that it has attracted “voyeuristic gazes from the people,” said Yoon In-jin, a professor of sociology at Korea University in Seoul.
“A month into this nationwide experiment, we have yet to gauge its epidemiological effectiveness, but already saw too many virus patients getting ridiculed and judged for places they visited,” Yoon said.
Even with names redacted, there are cases where enough information was made public to deduce the patient’s identity.
A South Korean — the third confirmed coronavirus patient in the country — was savaged by online trolls after it was revealed that he, while symptomatic, accompanied a Chinese woman to a hotel and a plastic surgery clinic in the upmarket Gangnam district in Seoul.
The woman also tested positive for the coronavirus. Online comments labeled them “a couple in extramarital affair” and accused them of “super-spreading” the virus across the city.
Lee Wang-jun, chairman of Myongji Hospital where the patient was treated, said the man received psychiatric treatment after the online attacks.
“It’s time for us to look back at the side effects,” said Cho Sung-il, an epidemiologist at Seoul National University who advises South Korea’s coronavirus tracing team, “and ponder ways to minimize the impact on people’s privacy.”
Denyer reported from Tokyo. Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.