Bangladesh can face a fresh embargo regarding visa issuance for entry to South Korea. Such a concern is looming since many Bangladeshis who entered South Korea in the past two months with Covid-19 negative certificates were later tested positive there.
The warning came in a recent notice issued by the South Korean embassy in Dhaka, in which the East Asian country emphasised on taking the highest cautionary measure to be free from coronavirus to avoid an embargo.
South Korea imposed an indefinite ban on visa issuance and flight operations from Bangladesh for the first time on June 23 last year. Through diplomatic efforts, Bangladesh was able to convince the country to lift the ban after eight months on February 8 this year.
The South Korean embassy notice, issued on Monday (April 5) both on website and Facebook, says: "Covid-19 positive cases are found successively among Bangladeshi nationals despite having Covid-19 negative certificates. Infection rate increased significantly in the later part of March 2021 which turns out to be a matter of serious concern for the Korean authorities."
However, although a concerning situation regarding visa embargo has been created, the South Korean embassy is sincerely trying to avoid it.
The notice adds: "The embassy expects a proactive and voluntary support from visitors for taking the highest preventive and cautionary measure to avoid Covid-19 infection before and after entering Korea. With your support, we want to avoid situation like the June 2020 ban on Korean visa issuance, the result of which can be severe for other Bangladeshis."
According to sources in South Korea, after the lifting of ban in February, 17 people in March and another six people in April reportedly tested Covid-19 positive after they entered South Korea with obtaining Covid-19 negative certificates while traveling from Bangladesh.
They underwent PCR tests as per guideline, 72 hours before the flight at 13 government-enlisted health centres, which are approved by the South Korean embassy, and boarded the plane with obtaining the Covid-19 negative certificates.
It was not possible to collect their details, neither could it be known how many Bangladeshis entered South Korea since February 7.
Expatriate businessman and former president of Bangladesh Community in South Korea Habil Uddin entered the East Asian country last week. He informed that after reaching the airport, one has to undergo a fresh PCR test there.
A person who is tested positive has to undergo institutional quarantine on own expenditure while a person tested negative has to undergo home quarantine for 14 days. After end of the quarantine, one needs to undergo a PCR test again and they are able to rejoin workplace only if they test negative.
The South Korean government-fixed expenditure for institutional quarantine is over KRW 3 million (about Tk 2.28 lakh), whereas more than KRW 10 million could be spent depending on the situation.
Covid-infected Bangladeshis have to bear the expenditure now.
Negligence in following "self-isolation or home quarantine" has been blamed mainly for the positive cases. It is also reflected in the advice given by the South Korean embassy in its notice.
"It is advised to avoid contact with anyone for two weeks prior to entering Korea; follow self-quarantine rigidly and rigorously; please change your travel plan if you have Covid-19 symptom."
Many agreed about lack of awareness. South Korea-based expatriate Zakaria Khalid said, "As far as we know, many did not maintain self-quarantine after taking the Covid-19 test. They spent time visiting relatives and shopping as travel preparation. As a result, they got infected and tested positive after reaching South Korea."
Several Bangladeshis who returned to South Korea in special flights in May-June last year were tested Covid-19 positive and as a result, Bangladesh faced the visa ban in June. To lift the ban, Bangladesh foreign ministry and Bangladesh embassy in South Korea started diplomatic efforts. The Bangladesh foreign minister himself tried to get approval of Seoul through letters and phone conversation.
Following assurance of highest cautionary measures, the South Korean embassy in Dhaka started receiving visa applications from Bangladeshis after the lift of ban in February.
Many expatriates are blaming negligence of agencies concerned in Bangladesh over lack of awareness of those who tested positive.
Jahangir Alam, international affairs secretary of Bangabandhu Parishad in South Korea, said, "Positive cases are reported within one month of the new start, and there are 17 cases. As the embassy's notice cites the prevalence as 'successive', it means it is not ending. So, it is normal to question how cautious or aware the relevant agencies are regarding Korea-bound passengers, after they gave assurance of the highest cautionary measures. They should have allowed South Korea-bound passengers in plane after ensuring the highest cautionary measures through monitoring their 'self-quarantine'."
Writer-journalist Omar Faruque Himel recently shifted to Germany after spending 10 years in South Korea. Last June, when the embargo was imposed, he was in Korea, observing everything closely. Besides, he wrote various articles in media for the return of Bangladeshi expatriates who got stranded in Bangladesh.
In light of that experience and long diplomatic efforts for lifting the embargo, he thinks Bangladeshi agencies have failed to do their duty accordingly. In his view, although the embargo was lifted after eight months' diplomatic efforts, the present situation indicates no one took lessons from the past embargo.
"If the agencies were sincere then today such concerns would not reappear. No agency appears to be alerted, although 23 people have been tested positive so far, whereas the South Korean embassy has come forward to alert and aware us. They themselves do not want to impose embargo. The Bangladesh embassy also raised alert by sharing the notice. However, the main agencies involved in overseas employment activities are totally nonchalant; even there is no response after the notice by the South Korean embassy."
Like Himel, many others opined that it is urgent to take special steps to ensure the highest cautionary measures for South Korea-bound passengers without delay. Since they are not maintaining home quarantine, they have to be put in 14-day institutional quarantine under government arrangement. For this, they emphasised coordination and sincerity of all relevant agencies including the foreign ministry, health ministry, and expatriates' welfare ministry.
Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL) is the only state-owned manpower exporting agency. The agency -- under the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry -- is tasked upon to send "EPS (Employment Permit System) workers" to South Korea and look after their wellbeing.
BOESL was proactive to send back those who got stranded at home amid the pandemic to South Korea and also in lifting the visa embargo. Although worried about the new concern, Acting Managing Director of BOESL Md Mahabubur Rahman is reluctant to accept allegations of government negligence behind it.
"The ministry and agencies under it, including BOESL, are aware so that Bangladesh's labour market, not only in South Korea but all over the globe, does not face any crisis, and they are fully monitoring the situation. Besides, there is a clear sign of passengers' lack of awareness in the Korean embassy's notice. Besides expatriate workers, many students, professionals, and businesspersons are going to the country. So, we applied for inter-ministerial meeting to decide doable amid overall situation. Hopefully, initiative will soon be taken in this regard."
"We also think there is no alternative to institutional quarantine, so our proposal is to ensure at least seven days' institutional quarantine in hotel under rigorous monitoring for all South Korea-bound passengers (before the flight)," said the managing director.
South Korea is home to about 18,000 Bangladeshis. Although small in number, they have been playing an important role in remittance inflow to the country due to their high education status and high salaries. More than a thousand workers have remained stranded at home due to complications regarding visa, after they came home on holiday amid the pandemic, while sending new EPS workers remains suspended.
Sector insiders opined if a fresh embargo is imposed then the situation can be even worse than the previous incident, while concerns also remain regarding losing South Korea's labour market.
The reporter is a freelance journalist writing for The Daily Star.