S. Korea quarantines thousands of church members as worsening COVID-19 ‘crisis’ looms


South Korean authorities on Monday asked thousands of Protestant church members in Seoul to quarantine themselves as the country battles virus clusters linked to religious groups.

Over the weekend, the capital and neighbouring Gyeonggi province banned all religious gatherings and urged residents to avoid unnecessary travel after a burst of new cases sparked fears of a major second wave.

Authorities warned of a looming COVID-19 “crisis” even as the country’s “trace, test and treat” approach has been held up as a global model in how to curb the virus.

South Korea reported 197 new cases on Monday, taking its total to 15,515, its fourth consecutive day of triple-digit increases after several weeks with numbers generally in the 30s and 40s.

“We’re seeing the current situation as an initial stage of a large-scale transmission,” Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)​​​​​​​ director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

“We’re facing a crisis where if the current spread isn’t controlled, it would bring an exponential rise in cases, which could in turn lead to the collapse of our medical system and enormous economic damage.”

The largest current cluster is centred on the SarangJeil Church in Seoul, headed by a controversial conservative pastor who is a leading figure in protests against President Moon Jae-in.

Nearly 320 cases linked to the church have been confirmed so far, officials said Monday, making it one of the biggest clusters and around 3,400 members of the congregation had been asked to quarantine.

The outbreak has revived fears seen in February when authorities struggled to contain an outbreak that emerged in a secretive Christian sect in the city of Daegu and became the country’s deadliest cluster.

As in the earlier case, authorities are facing some reluctance to cooperate and difficulty in tracking some of the members of the congregation.

Around one in six of the church members tested so far had been positive, “requiring rapid testing and isolation”, said vice health minister Kim Gang-lip.

But a list of 4,000 members provided by the church was “inaccurate”, he said, making the testing and isolation procedure “very difficult”. While 319 of them had tested positive, more than 600 who authorities want to see in isolation were unaccounted for.

“We’re very concerned,” Kim said, dismissing rumours that authorities wanted to round up church members and would record every test as positive regardless of the truth.

Sarang Jeil’s leader Jun Kwang-hun was among the speakers who addressed thousands of right-wing protestors who rallied against Moon’s centre-left government in the heart of Seoul at the weekend, despite the outbreak and calls to avoid large gatherings.

Jun has tested positive for the virus, Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday.

The initial outbreak of the virus in the South was centred on the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult and was also accused of obstructing investigators.

The leader of Shincheonji – to which more than 5,000 cases were linked – Lee Man-hee was arrested earlier this month for allegedly giving inaccurate records of church gatherings and false lists of its members to health authorities. (Source: CNA)