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Concerns spread over logistics center-linked COVID-19

Coupang under fire for inaction, authorities struggle to contain further spread

A Coupang delivery truck is parked in front of the company’s logistics center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. (Yonhap)
A Coupang delivery truck is parked in front of the company’s logistics center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. (Yonhap)

Consumers are increasingly concerned by the vast COVID-19 infections linked to major e-commerce logistics centers in South Korea on Thursday, with authorities scurrying to track and contain the spread, while companies received mixed views for their contrasting countermeasures.

Since an employee working at Coupang’s logistics center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, was first confirmed to have contracted the virus Saturday, related cases stood at 82 as of 2 p.m. Thursday.

Coupang shut down its second logistics center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday after a new COVID-19 case was confirmed among workers there. The retailer closed the Bucheon logistics center on Monday afternoon.

Market Kurly, an online grocery platform here, also shut down its logistics center in Songpa-gu in Seoul on Wednesday, after a part-time worker was diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Kim Seul-ah, founder and CEO of Market Kurly, immediately issued a statement for consumers on its platform, apologizing for the case, and vowed to take all measures possible to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We will discard all stocked items that cannot be sterilized at the center, and also stop sales of all room-temperature products until we resume operations,” Kim said.

“We will also complete disinfection of our other logistics centers until Thursday morning and increase the frequency of our regular disinfections and checkups, until the COVID-19 crisis stabilizes.”

Coupang, on the other hand, maintained a low-key stance regarding criticism that it did not close down the Bucheon center until one day after an infection case there was reported.

Many online commentators have accused the center of having failed to inform other employees of the infection case that was confirmed Sunday, before deciding to close it the next day after several more patients were confirmed to have contracted the virus. Among viral claims was a text message the center’s management allegedly sent out to workers, seeking people who can take additional shifts.

Coupang has said it had, and is taking all possible measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

As for the case of the first employee, the company admitted it did not find the need to close the center at first, as the person had not come to work after May 20.

The company temporarily shut down the center for three hours to conduct disinfection after it was informed of the case early Sunday. It was shut down again on Monday after more infected cases were reported. It remains closed as of Thursday.

“All products that have been ordered are safe, as they were sterilized once more before delivery. We will do all we can to make sure not even one customer feels uneasy,” a Coupang spokesperson told The Korea Herald.

On Thursday afternoon, Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung ordered a ban prohibiting any kind of gathering at the Bucheon logistics center for two weeks -- the first ban of its kind to be issued by the province against a private company.

Holding an emergency press conference online, Lee expressed regret on Coupang’s initial response to the first infection case.

“It is regrettable that hundreds of workers were exposed to the danger (of infection) even after the company became aware of a confirmed patient,” Lee said.

“The company has also been slow in providing with the list of delivery workers affiliated with the center, which led to the police to compel an (epidemiological) investigation.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Coupang has been seeing a rapid surge in sales, recording the biggest online shopping transactions in the first quarter at 1.44 trillion won ($1.16 billion) in January, 1.63 trillion won in February and 1.77 trillion won in March, according to Wiseapp, a market analysis app.

Setting convenient delivery as its strategic priority, with its dawn delivery and same-day delivery services, the retailer has been hiring part time workers whenever needed, unlike other companies that put limits on the number of daily deliveries. Consequently, a lot of Coupang delivery workers hold multiple temporary jobs.

Coupang has 168 logistics and distribution centers across the country.

Despite the companies’ countermeasures, increasing number of consumers are expressing concerns, particularly as they have been relying heavily on online shopping as part of social distancing.

“I had stopped going to large supermarkets due to fears about the coronavirus and started to order more items online, but then this happened,” Jang Seo-min, 32 said, referring to infections at a Coupang logistics center in Bucheon.

“I had some items delivered through Coupang a few days ago and I am very worried I might have touched the contaminated surface of packages and contracted the virus,” she said, adding that she would be staying away from using the service for the time being.

Despite the contactless delivery, Jo Young-ran, 58, who regularly orders items through Coupang, said she will take extra precautions after picking up packages -- wiping down the packages with a disinfectant or washing her hands.

“I am a little bit worried (after reading news about employees at logistics centers), but I would still use delivery services,” she said. “I never receive packages from delivery workers in person anyway. After I pick them up, I wipe the surface of the packages and wash my hands.”

The coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from one person to another, typically through droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks at close range, rather than via contaminated surfaces, according to studies.

A study published in the New England Medical Journal by researchers in the US found the virus can survive, under ideal conditions, up to three days on hard metal surfaces and plastic and up to 24 hours on cardboard.

The risk of transmission through delivered packages, however, is slim, health authorities said.

“There is no transmission of the virus through delivered packages and the possibility of transmission is very low, according to experts’ assessment,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a briefing Thursday. “Around the world, there is no reported case of infection through delivered packages.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says that people can become infected by “touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” But that is not the main way the virus spreads, it says.

Seeing the infection linked to logistics centers go up, the government also said it will conduct an emergency checkup of about 1,400 logistics centers and delivery service terminals across the country, and renew its safety guidelines to mandate creating a visiting list at those facilities.

The government had issued safety guidelines for the delivery industry in February, including field disinfection measures and face mask distribution.

By Jo He-rim and Ock Hyun-ju (herim@heraldcorp.com), (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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