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South Korean investigators trawl digital data to find people linked to nightclub coronavirus cluster


South Korean authorities have combed through mobile phone data, credit card statements and CCTV footage to identify people who visited nightclubs at the centre of one of the capital’s biggest coronavirus clusters.

More than 100 new cases linked to the nightclubs have brought fears of a second wave of infections in a country held up as a coronavirus-mitigation success story.

Health authorities have tracked and tested thousands of people linked to the nightclubs and bars in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlife neighbourhood, but want to find others who they have not been able to identify.

“We are using telecom station information and credit card transactions from the nightclubs to identify 1,982 of those who are not available,” health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said.

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) on Tuesday (local time) said at least 102 people had tested positive in connection with the cases linked to nightclubs and bars.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said 7,272 people had been tested in connection with the cluster, including family members or co-workers of clubgoers.

Officials had identified 10,905 people who were in the Itaewon area when the cluster of cases is believed to have got going this month, based on mobile phone information, and another 494 who used credit cards, Mr Park said.

Authorities fear because some of the establishments were known as gay bars, some people could be put off coming forward for testing, because homosexuality remains taboo for many Koreans.

Media outlets have identified the nightclubs the first patient visited as gay clubs, sparking concern LGBTQ people could be outed against their will or face discrimination.

Mr Park said another 20-year-old man who had visited a different club had tested positive, raising concern the outbreak may not be limited to the venues initially identified.

Anonymity boosts testing

A birds eye view of a testing facility in Seoul where several people are waiting to be tested.
People wait to be tested at a facility in Seoul.(AP: Choi Jae-gu/Yonhap)

Human rights group Amnesty International said some media outlets were making the authorities’ prevention and disinfection measures more difficult by pointing fingers at a “certain group” of patients.

“Amnesty International Korea Branch urges the authorities and media to take concrete and selective measures to prevent discrimination and stigmatisation,” the group said.

Given the sensitivity, authorities have introduced what they call “anonymous testing”, with people only needing to provide a phone number and not a name.

Mr Park said the number of people getting tested had doubled as a result of the new service.

South Korea has been widely praised for its prompt action during the pandemic, with massive testing and aggressive contact-tracing significantly reducing the rate of new infections in recent weeks to fewer than 10 cases a day before this new outbreak.

Officials reported 27 new coronavirus infections across the country as of midnight on Monday, the fifth day of double-digit cases after the first case at the nightclubs was revealed last week.

In all, South Korea has recorded 10,936 cases of coronavirus and 258 deaths.

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