In the past two years, a total of 336 young people have lost their lives in tragic events, all of which happened because of an uncontrollable crowd. From concerts, to clubs, to parties, young people have gathered post-COVID to have a good time, but the events ended in chaos and death. A recent stampede in South Korea’s Itaewon, a popular party district in Seoul, is another statistic in a growing list of events characterized by post-COVID crowd frenzy.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Young People
South Korea has a major party culture despite the country’s conservative foundation. A record number of people gathered at Itaewon to celebrate Halloween on Saturday, October 29, and tragically, 156 people died. Although Itaewon has always been a popular district for clubs and parties, the streets were exceptionally crowded on this particular weekend. This was likely the case because South Korea started to loosen its strict COVID regulations, and many young people, who experienced a great amount of frustration during the pandemic, saw the Halloween celebration as a chance to release their stress.
The pandemic took away opportunities for teenagers and young people to have fun before growing older, which, in contemporary Korean culture, is considered an essential rite of passage. As a result of lockdown and strict regulations that continued even after the pandemic, many young people are experiencing constant anger, resentment, and stress. The important cultural marker of going out and having fun was taken away for almost two years. The result is not just an increase in people at clubs, but people not caring about those around them as they try to relieve their own stress. This newly returned freedom may end all because of the tragedy at Itaewon, one that many say should not have happened.
The Response of the Korean People
People are blaming the police for lack of action and inability to contain the situation. The police had estimated that roughly 100,000 people would be on the streets of Itaewon, but many said that the crowd was bigger than they had expected. Eyewitnesses have condemned the police for failing to control the crowd by taking proper action. Hong Ki-Hyun, the chief of the agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, expressed regret about the police’s judgment on large crowd control.
Besides the lack of proper judgment and inaction by the police, people are angered that South Korea lost many young lives. Middle school, high school, and college students say that they do not feel protected and that they do not know when they might die. After all, Halloween at Itaewon was meant to be a celebration of youth. No one knew it would become one of the nation’s worst disasters.
The incident at Itaewon also brings back memories of the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, when 304 of the 476 passengers tragically drowned, and 250 of them were high school students on a school trip. The country had taken a long time to heal, especially the families and friends of the young students. Not unlike the response to the Itaewon tragedy, people blamed the authorities and claimed that the incident could have been prevented. They felt that the older generation had failed the young people, a generation that had bright futures ahead of them.
What the Itaewon Tragedy Shows
Now, eight years later, South Korea is faced with another tragedy that could have been prevented. The behavior shown during the Itaewon incident was not only exhibited in Korea, but also around the world, as there has been a global rise in crowd-related disasters. These events reveal the consequences of the pent-up frustration and anger caused by the pandemic and the unpreparedness of the authorities to respond to large crowds of individuals who have been, essentially, locked up for two years.
As a teenager who was forced to stay inside for almost a year and a half, I can understand why so many people are behaving this way. I was unable to meet friends or participate in any social activities like parties, which are the right of the young. When Covid regulations loosened, I was immediately pushed into senior year and college applications. I lost the two years in which I could have had fun before seriously focusing on my future.
No one can justify the 156 deaths in Itaewon, yet it is not a surprise that the crowd behaved in a way that led to this horrific incident. People were angry because they were shut out from the world for nearly two years, and even more frustrated because of strict Covid regulations that continued to prevent them from socializing with others. The Itaewon tragedy, as well as many other crowd-related disasters, serve to demonstrate the dehumanization of people as a consequence of the pandemic. If you are going to lock people up in the name of health, then every aspect of health needs to be considered, which includes mental health. The events of Itaewon and other places show that while we may have prevented more COVID cases, we have increased rising mental health issues in the youth and therefore, may have increased global violence. But perhaps only the future will tell if leaders in Korea and around the world made the right call.