|A sign at a public library in Seoul notifies people that vaccine pass is required to use the facility starting Monday. Yonhap|
Omicron variant feared to spread nationwide
By Bahk Eun-ji
Anxious parents are protesting the government's de facto "forcible" measure to get children aged between 12 and 17 vaccinated against COVID-19 through its extended vaccine pass program, which included cram schools, or "hagwon," and libraries in the list of public places subject to the program.
They claim the measure infringes on children's right to learn, noting the policy lacks consistency as the government previously said the inoculation of children was a decision for parents to make. They added that it was unreasonable to include studying facilities while leaving out religious facilities and shopping malls where mass infections frequently occur.
The protest follows the government's new antivirus measures announced Friday that expands the vaccine pass system, which is now applied to people aged 18 or over, to children aged from 12 to 17 from Feb. 1 next year.
The vaccine pass is a system allowing fully vaccinated people or those with negative polymerase chain reaction (PRC) results to enter multiuse facilities.
The government also added more facilities to those subject to the system, including cram schools, libraries, study cafes and private reading rooms, mainly used by teenage students.
The health authorities said the expansion of the system was necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, especially the new Omicron variant. They believe getting more children vaccinated is key to controlling the virus situation because the rate of infections among them over the past four weeks was higher than that of adults, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Parents, who have been hesitant to get their children vaccinated out of fear of possible side effects, say it is virtually a "mandatory" measure because almost all children attend hagwon in Korea and submitting negative PCR test results every 48 hours to these cram schools would be impossible.
"Some people say that vaccination is not compulsory because going to private academies is a choice, not an obligation like schools," Kim Ji-hyun, a parent of a middle school student in Nowon District in Seoul, said. "But it doesn't make sense at all because hagwon are providing a kind of after-school care service for families with working parents like me."
Numerous petitions opposing the expansion of the vaccine pass for children have been posted on the Cheong Wa Dae website.
Regarding the protests, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum urged parents to get their children vaccinated, saying not doing so was no longer an option.
"The vaccine pass is not discrimination (against unvaccinated people)," Kim said in a regular antivirus meeting Monday. "It is a bottom line that everybody should keep to, to protect the community."
Health experts also support the government policy.
"The vaccine pass is a measure to require unvaccinated people to show responsibility by at least getting a negative PCR result before using multiuse facilities," Jacob Lee, a professor of infectious disease at Hallym University Medical Center, wrote on Facebook. "It is strategy to protect the unvaccinated."
Meanwhile, suspected cases of the Omicron variant linked to a church in Incheon have been reported in Seoul and North Chungcheong Province over the past two days, raising the possibility that Omicron infections are spreading to other parts of the country beyond Incheon.
The accumulated number of Omicron variant infections here rose to 24 as of Sunday, up 12 from the previous day.
The newly confirmed cases include a resident of Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, in her 70s who attended a religious event for foreigners held at the Incheon church, Nov. 28. Several other attendees of the event reside in Seoul and other parts of the country
The KDCA reported 4,325 new COVID-19 infections for Monday, down from the previous day's 5,127, raising the total caseload to 477,358.