Vulnerability, critical human security and state capacity in uncertain times: South Korea and the UK

Critical Human Security and Post-Covid Public Policy[1] Blog Series Intro
Editors: Patricia Kennett and Huck-ju Kwon

The recent global pandemic posed multiple threats to individuals and societies and its impacts highlighted the intersectionality of these threats, their uneven impact and the longer-term scarring effects and policy challenges post-COVID-19. This series of blogs draws on research carried out during a recently completed UKRI funded knowledge exchange project[1] led by Professor Patricia Kennett in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, UK and Professor Huck-ju Kwon, Seoul National University, South Korea– Critical Human Security and Post-COVID Policy Challenge.  Through a range of research and knowledge exchange activities and with a regional focus on East Asia and Europe, in particular South Korea and the UK, the team sought to identify and address the complex and multisectoral social and public policy challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic and identify weaknesses and fault-lines in social, economic and political institutions, policies and processes highlighted and intensified since 2020. 

The blogs in this series draw on a critical human security framework integrating a range of cross-cutting dimensions of everyday life including health, economic, food, environmental and community security as well as personal and political freedom to understand better the complex and integrated policy challenges of the pandemic and sustainable strategies for addressing them as both South Korea and the UK look towards a more digitally connected, post-Covid future.  In combination, the blogs in the series hope to shed shed light on the uneven and complex challenges to human survival, livelihoods and well-being in a post-COVID world and support inclusive and gendered public policy responses.

Vulnerability, critical human security and state capacity in uncertain times: South Korea and the UK

Critical Human Security and Post-Covid Public Policy[1] Blog Series. Blog No. 1

By Patricia Kennett, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK, Professor Huck-ju Kwon, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea and Professor Suyeon Lee, Korea University, Sejong, South Korea.

Construction of insecurity and “vulnerability”

Person hanging a closed until outbreak ends sign up on door
Image by Freepik

At a time when there is increasing unpredictability in everyday life and a broader range of intersecting insecurities, traditional sources of security linked to employment and the labour market, savings and assets, family, welfare, and the economic growth model can also now be perceived as sources of insecurity. This can be evidenced by increasing inequality in both South Korea and the UK; more segmented labour markets, the platform economy and in-work poverty; financialisation and increasing household debt; and environmental degradation.

Located within the pre-pandemic socio-economic and institutional contexts, the policy responses and preventive measures taken by governments and their impacts have themselves contributed to multiple and overlapping dimensions of insecurity (Kuran et al, 2020). As the world shifts to “living with Covid” it is particularly significant to recognise and highlight longer term, persistent and ongoing “scarring” effects of the pandemic and that some groups of people and places were more vulnerable to economic, social and health risks and thus the longer term impacts than others.

It is also timely to emphasise and demonstrate the importance of inclusive, adequate and sustainable systems of social protection, health and social care, as well as decent work and income security. A multidimensional and critical human security framework – comprised of a range of integrated dimensions of life, including health, economic, environmental, and community security as well as personal and political freedom (Human Security Unit, 2016; Newman, 2010) – enables us to shed light on the  impacts of the pandemic and  the intersecting institutional and policy terrains that have has shaped and constructed the “crisis” and  the dynamics of security, insecurity and vulnerability (Lavell, 2020; Oliver-Smith, 2022).

This blog draws on publicly available data to explore and compare some of the ways in which vulnerability has been constructed, deepened and addressed during the pandemic and the implications for different groups of people in the UK and South Korea.

Understanding and responding to the crisis

Whilst the historical and political legacies, institutional mix and political economy vary between the UK and South Korea, both have established and comprehensive systems of social protection, health and social care with the potential to provide the basic infrastructure of state capacity for human security in times of crisis.  However, the two countries took very different paths in framing the global pandemic and responses to it.

In Korea, early detection of the virus, and rapid implementation of containment measures such as 3Ts (trace-test-treatment (See Hung, 2023 in this Blog Series) avoided the need for more extreme and systemic lockdowns as in the UK. In the UK, detection was late and response slow. Failure to develop effective track and trace system during the first year of the pandemic, with its performance considered `slow, uncertain and often chaotic’ and despite substantial expenditure of taxpayer’s money directed at it’ (13.5 billion 2020-21 (Brien and Keep, 2023). In contrast to Korea, the UK experienced ‘unprecedented shock’ (ONS, 2022) with a fall in GDP of 19.4% between April to June 2020, returning to pre-Covid levels in 2022. CPIH inflation rose from 0.5% in August 2020 to 7.8% in 2022.UK recorded one of the highest COVID-19 related deaths and illness in Europe and substantially higher than in Korea. Between 1 March 2020 and 9 October 2021 cumulative deaths from Covid-19 were 138,101 in the UK and 2,575 in South Korea.

In contrast, the UK vaccination programme (£5.6 billion) was considered an unprecedented success nationally and internationally. By Feb 2021, 16 million first dose vaccines had been administered in the UK whilst in Korea vaccination didn’t begin until the end of that month. In the UK by July 2021 vaccines had been offered to all adults, 90% of adults receiving two doses by the end of May 2022.  In both Korea and UK it also revealed and reflected long-standing patterns of structural and health inequality and insecurity relating to race, ethnicity and citizenship status.  In UK, for example, people of Black, Black British and Pakistani origins were less than half as likely as people of White British origin to have had their boosters (Committee of Public Accounts, 2022).  In Korea, unregistered residents were more likely to avoid testing and vaccination due to concerns about arrest or forced departure (National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 2022).

Labour market and income insecurity

In Korea it tended to be temporary employees, daily workers and micro-business owners who bore the brunt of labour market fallout (ILO, 2020) as a result of the pandemic.  About 60% of the lost jobs in 2020 coming from wholesale and retail, accommodation, and food service industries which generally employ low-income workers or the self-employed, and having a disproportionate impact on women, young people and migrant populations. The employment of permanent workers in Korea reached the pre-crisis level by the last month of 2020 but that of temporary workers and daily workers decreased by 351,000 and 170,000 respectively. In Korea non regular workers accounted for 30% of all employees in 2015 and the pandemic has aggravated this duality exposing weakness in unemployment insurance and vulnerability in the labour market structure.

In the UK there were approximately 1.65 million temporary workers (zero hours contracts, contract work for example) as of March 2023 compared with just over 1.45 million in 2020 (Clark, 2023). Pay rates are significantly lower with irregular workers likely to earn 1/3 lower than average employee. It particularly involves work carried out by Black and minority ethnic workers compared to white workers.

Data demonstrates that measures taken in both countries went some way to help buffer the impacts on consumption during the pandemic for those on lower incomes, but these were relatively short lived. In the UK by 2022 household incomes in the bottom quarter of the income distribution showed real term reduction and percentage of households with relative low income had increased. This was particularly the case among pensioners but also children and in work adults (DWP, 2023). In 2022, Korea’s income distribution ratio reached 6.45, up from 6.2  a year earlier, which implies that the top quintile had 6.45 times more earnings than the bottom quintile (Bank of Korea, 2022). Korea’s relative poverty rate has been on the decline (16.3% in 2019, 15.3% in 2022) but nearly 50% of single-person households live below the poverty line.

Household debt was already relatively high in UK and South Korea. In Korea household debt risen consistently since 2019 – 185% of net disposable income reaching 206% in 2021 (OECD, 2021).  Personal and corporate bankruptcies increased by more than 10% in 2020 (Park, 2021). In UK household debt 146% in 2019 rising to 151% in 2020 dropping slightly to 148% in 2021. Over-indebtedness amongst lower income households borrowing likely to be more expensive (consumer debt) and accompanied by “missing wealth buffers” exposing households to greater insecurity.

Health, Social Care and Human insecurity

The Pandemic affected every aspect of health and care services in both countries (ADASS, 2021; Kings Fund). In Korea, the National Health Insurance (1989) is a universal public health care system operating through public insurance, with services mainly delivered through private clinics and not-for-profit private hospitals and public health care institutions.  Medical providers are reimbursed on a fee-for-services basis from NHI.  This model has tended towards an over-supply of medical services which, paradoxically, meant there was capacity to meet increasing demand of the health emergency with fast-track testing, facilities and protocol for isolation, and available beds (Padro and Lee, 2020). In the UK, the National Health Service is a comprehensive health service, established in 1946, universal and free at the point of delivery (for the most part), financed by general taxation (81%), national insurance (18%), and patient charges (1%) (OECD, 2021).  Prior to the pandemic the NHS was already facing challenges; deep staff shortages, low capacity, consistent reduction in number of beds, growing shortage of overnight general and acute beds (British Medical Association, 2023; Kings Fund, 2022).   Inability of government measures to keep community transmission low presented a severe challenge for the health service in England.  Response was to suspend treatment for non-COVID cases and the construction of seven “Nightingale” hospitals.  However, many never treated a single patient and were repurposed (Guardian, 2020)   Post-COVID waiting lists for elective care are at the highest level since records began (Ewbank et al,  2021).

Intersecting insecurities in later life

Even before the pandemic older people, particularly in Korea, had been facing challenges but became particularly vulnerable during the pandemic in both countries. Poverty rate for people aged 65 or older reached 40.4% in 2020 in Korea (OECD, 2021). In UK in 2020/21 15% of those 65 and over lived in relative poverty (1.7 million people). A Third of Asian older people, and just under third of Black British older people in the UK lived below the poverty line compared to 16% of white pensioners (Age UK, 2021).

Korea’s emergency response underprioritised people living in long-term care facilities where the elderly and disabled constitute the absolute majority. In the first year of the pandemic, about 80.7% of COVID-19 related deaths occurred in nursing hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric wards, and religious organisations.

In the UK, it wasn’t just slow response to the pandemic, but also over-emphasis on one-dimensional strategy to “protect the NHS”. Elderly people in care facilities experienced the severest and most concentrated impact of the virus and insecurity across all dimensions in the UK with ‘age-based’ policy approaches and direct and indirect age discrimination, social isolation and deprivation of civil liberties and human rights, triage protocols and arbitrary age criteria as the bases for allocating scarce resources, as well as personal violence and neglect (Age UK, 2020).

In July in the UK 2021 75,000 people with disabilities and older people and carers were waiting for help with care and support or agreed care   and support to be put in place (ADASS, 2021). Almost 7,000 disabled and older people had been waiting for more than a month. From 2022 and onwards is set to be the most challenging that adult social care had every faced (ADASS, 2021). 

Concluding remarks

The scale, impact and stringency of policy responses and state capacity were clearly different between the UK and South Korea which in turn shaped different constellations of risk and insecurity. The pandemic and the responses to it exposed and exacerbated a range of existing structural inequalities and fault-lines in institutions and social safety nets as well as generated and perpetuated new dynamics of insecurity. Low income, high debt and missing wealth buffers highlight precariousness of the financial insecurity of an increasing number of households that policy, politics and institutions are failing to address.  The health and social care sectors were ill-prepared, insufficient and late response compounded existing lack of investment and staffing issues. Major challenges are now confronting health and social care sectors, particularly in the UK, but also in South Korea highlighting the importance of inclusive, adequate and sustainable systems of social protection, health and social care as well as the importance of decent work and income security.

[1] This draws on collaborative research funded by ESRC Grant Number ES/W010739/1.


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