Around 1,300 people arrived here from Europe on Sunday, about 100 more than usual. Those with a temperature and other telltale symptoms of coronavirus were examined at a quarantine section at Incheon International Airport, but those who did not were transported to eight examination centers for testing. The government requires mandatory testing of all travelers from Europe.
The government foots the bill for the test, which costs W150,000 per person (US$1=W1,245). Almost W200 million was spent on coronavirus tests on Sunday alone. The government also pays temporary accommodation for all — around W65,000 per night — until test results come out.
Visitors staying in Korea for more than 90 days must be placed in self-quarantine for two weeks even if the initial test comes out negative, and the government pays each of them W212,300 to cover living expenses.
Those who test positive have to spend more than W4 million for treatment, which the government also covers. The measures are designed to ensure public safety, but critics say this puts a huge burden on taxpayers.
Many countries have sealed their borders to visitors from risky countries and do not require such high levels of spending.
Government officials here did not heed repeated calls from medical experts early on to ban visitors from China. The government insisted it could contain the spread of infections here by enforcing stricter entry screening.
But it has now become difficult to seal Korea’s borders because of the large number of expats and travelers returning home from abroad.
The total number of infections here has soared to 9,000, while 110 people died. Some 175 countries have prohibited entry to Koreans, including 35 countries in Europe. Ma Sang-hyuk, a director of the doctors’ association in South Gyeongsang Province, said, “We should have dealt with the epidemic by limiting entry but failed to do that, and now we’re paying the price.”
The problem is that the coronavirus epidemic is spreading beyond Europe. The number of arrivals from the U.S., which is emerging as another hotbed of infections, totaled 3,414 on Saturday, three times more than travelers from Europe.
On Sunday the number of confirmed infections in the U.S. surpassed 33,000.
Korea could end up with a severe blow to its fiscal health if it continues to keep the borders open. Already infections among Koreans who returned from overseas are surging. Until March 14, there were no cases of infections among Koreans returning from North America or Latin America, but 12 recent cases occurred among Koreans who came back from the U.S.
Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters, “We will bolster quarantine measures while monitoring COVID-19 infections in the U.S. and other countries. We are considering screening for all arrivals from countries other than Europe if necessary.”
Choi Jae-wook at Korea University said, “Foreigners who live in Korea have to pay for their own medical expenses, and if we start covering costs of cases among visitors arriving from foreign countries, that could stir accusations of unfairness.”
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