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Legitimacy and Constitutionality of Contact Tracing in Pandemic in the Republic of Korea

Gyooho Lee

The Republic of Korea (hereinafter referred to “South Korea” or “Korea” interchangeably) had learned a valuable lesson from the Middle East Respiratory Syndromes (hereinafter “MERS”) outbreak in 2015. Hence, the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Act of 2015 (hereinafter “IDPC Act of 2015”) and its pertinent ministerial ordinance newly prescribed legal bases to retrace contacts of the infected patients. It is called as “contact tracing.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, the contact tracing system has come into play well.

Even though the legitimacy of the contact tracing system is guaranteed under the IDPC Act of 2015 and of 2020, the constitutionality can be challenged because it may violate the freedom of the infected patients and their contacts to move and maintain their occupation, and their freedom of privacy. When there is a conflict between the fundamental rights, an upper-level one will take precedence over a lower-level one. When we take into account the pandemic of the deadly COVID-19 virus, right to life, right of occupation and right to know information on the movement paths of the infected patients which non-infected persons have should take precedence over the right to move and the freedom of occupation and of privacy, of the infected persons and their contacts. However, in restricting the fundamental rights of the infected patients and their contacts, the proportionality test will be applied. Hence. there are certain requirements for legislation that restricts the fundamental rights of the nationals only by the public’s risk to those who are in contact with an infected person or to those merely suspected of being infected. All of the following must be balanced: (i) the legitimacy of the purpose, (ii) the adequacy of the method for achieving the goal, (iii) the minimum of damage, and (iv) the balance of legal interests between the public interest to be protected by the legislation and the fundamental right to be infringed.

The provisions of the IDPC Act are intended to protect the health of the people. The contact tracing based on those provisions is effective and adequate for achieving the said objective. In addition, the public interest, i.e., national health, to be achieved through the provisions is greater than the limited private interests, i.e., freedom of privacy, of occupation, and of movement which can be enjoyed by the infected patients and their contacts. However, the state needs to explore whether the third requirement, which is minimization of harm of the infected patients and their contacts, has been met. In other words, the disclosure of personal information of the infected persons or their contact needs to be minimized while Article 37 (2) of the Korean Constitution is taken into account. The issue here is whether the limitations to the right to privacy, to move, and the right of religion, of the infected patients or their contacts must be provided by the IDPC Act. Even though the scope of disclosure of the movement paths of the infected patients and their contacts is advised by the KCDC’s guidelines, its legal bases are on, e.g., Articles 34 bis (1), 76 bis and 6 (2) of the IDPC Act. Also, the pandemic of a novel infectious disease is not easily predictable, so that the scope of disclosure of the movement paths of the infected persons and their contacts can be different based on the type of a new infectious disease. In this context, even though the KCDC’s guidelines are not binding upon local governments, it is not fair to say that the scope of disclosure of the movement paths of the infected persons and their contacts is not groundless and unconstitutional. Taking into account the difficulty in delineating the effect of a new infectious disease and the necessity for expeditious countermeasure against it, the disclosure of the movement paths of the infected patients and their contacts is constitutional under the IDPC Act combined with the pertinent provisions of Personal Information Protection Act despite the fact that the contents of the KCDC’s guidelines are not explicitly provided under the IDPC Act.

PAROLE CHIAVE: COVID-19 - contract tracing - South Korea - Republic of Korea - infectious disease - freedom of occupation - right to move - right to health - right to life - freedom of privacy

Introduction

The Republic of Korea (hereinafter referred to “South Korea” or “Korea” interchangeably) had learned a valuable lesson from the Middle East Respiratory Syndromes (hereinafter “MERS”) outbreak in 2015. Since the first confirmed case of MERS in 2015, the Korean public healthcare authorities enforced many preventive and ex post measures for public health that were not authorized under the Korean law. The IDPC Act effective prior to MERS outbreak of 2015 did not properly allot the enforcement power to the central government and local governments. After the Korean government declared an end to the MERS outbreak at 24:00 pm on December 23, 2015, the government learned from MERS outbreak the importance of a centralized control tower to fight infectious diseases to come. In addition, the state inscribed in her memory the necessity for an early diagnostic test, and significance of preventive measures against infectious diseases including contact tracing as well.

All of the lessons came into play when the 2020 COVID virus outbreak took hold in South Korea. In particular, South Korea was ready to launch contact tracing after a great lesson from the MERS outbreak. It is an approach that permitted South Korea to test over 9,000 people who had been in contact with somebody who had tested positive.

On December 31st, 2019, China reported the first case of COVID-19 virus. It reportedly occurred in Wuhan fishery market in Wuhan, China. In the following weeks, as the novel coronavirus outbreak began spreading across the globe, South Korea had only 31 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus as of 9:00 am on February 18, 2020 [1]. However, in spite of the low number of the confirmed cases of the virus, the Center for Infectious Disease Control and Prevention in Korea (hereinafter “KCDC”) had already started working with biotech companies to develop an accurate, massive diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus. They had thousands of detection kits ready to use for diagnostic tests for the new coronavirus. By late February, 2020, the total number of coronavirus cases increased rapidly, surpassing 3000. This made South Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak the highest outside of China.

It started in Daegu, South Korea, where a woman attending a cult mega-church (Sincheonji church) went to the hospital with a fever. As the Korean government had already equipped hospitals with coronavirus diagnostic tests, medical doctors were able to test her. She got tested positive and became known as patient 31. While she was sick, patient 31, had gone to a church where she sat with a congregation of hundreds for more than an hour. Herd infections are the biggest concern of the KCDC. So the health authority traced her movements, identified residents she had come into contact with, and then tested those residents as well, whether they show symptoms or not. Many of them also got tested positive so that they were quickly self-quarantined and treated at home or at a medical center. In addition, all the people they had been in contact with were traced and tested, too. After the rapid increase of the total number of the coronavirus confirmed cases had made South Korea ramp up testing around the nation, including drive-thru testing booths and walk-thru testing ones. Private and national healthcare systems have cooperated to set up a mostly free testing effort. Hence, South Korea had 600 locations that screen as many as 20,000 people per day. Under this system, when anyone tests positive, the Korean government can test and trace their contacts to continue to break the transmission chains of the coronavirus on a large scale. Also, the infected person may have moved through the city, touching subway poles and door handles. Following the MERS outbreak, when they could not trace the movements of the virus, South Korea changed the law allowing the government to collect a patient’s data and security footage during the outbreak. All of their steps are logged and shared to alert people to stay away from the paths of infected persons [2]. Websites and private apps compile that information, allowing everyone to see if a person with a confirmed case of the virus went to a pharmacy or a hospital or anywhere else. They will become aware of how recently they went, too. By doing so, citizens are checking the coronavirus locations and are avoiding the movement paths of the infected persons. This information will let people know if they have crossed paths with an infected person so they can go get tested for the coronavirus.

Tracing people’s every move can be controversial but many South Koreans prioritize public health over privacy in an infectious disease outbreak. Since the disease can infect others, it holds true that ..


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