South Korea is warning of a looming coronavirus crisis that could cause the country’s medical system to “collapse” following the emergence of its largest outbreak in six months, centred around a church where hundreds of followers have been infected and others are evading testing.
The country has often served as a byword for successful mitigation of the virus, using extensive – albeit intrusive – contact-tracing measures to head off persistent spikes in infection.
However, after a fourth day of three-figure rises in new cases on Saturday, when 197 cases were reported, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) issued a stark warning.
“We’re seeing the current situation as an initial stage of a large-scale transmission,” KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said.
“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.”
Most of the new cases are emerging in Seoul, where more than 300 followers of the Sarang Jeil Church have tested positive for the virus – but hundreds more are reluctant to get checked.
Its right-wing pastor, Reverend Jun Kwang-hun, was among those found to have been infected, health officials said on Monday.
Rev Jun’s positive result was announced two days after he led members of his congregation to attend anti-government protests of more than 10,000 people – defying a government order for all members to self-isolate after the cluster was first identified.
Some 2,000 of its 4,000 members have been tested so far, while police are pursuing some 700 church members who remain uncontacted.
“The rate of positive tests [among church members] has so far been high, at 16.1 per cent, so the situation requires quick testing and isolation,” said vice health minister Kim Gang-lip.
There is concern that the outbreak at the church could spread nationwide through its members’ activities, said Ms Jeong of the KCDC, adding: “We believe we are in the early stage of a major outbreak.”
President Moon Jae-in’s government has strengthened social distancing restrictions in the Seoul metropolitan area — a move it had resisted for months out of economic concerns — and urged residents to avoid visiting other parts of the country for two weeks.
Rev Jun’s church has become South Korea’s second-biggest virus cluster, behind a branch of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu, which was tied to more than 5,000 cases in late February and March.
The country managed to stabilise the outbreak in Daegu and nearby areas by April after quickly ramping up testing and aggressively tracing contacts using mobile phone location data and credit card records.
But the fresh resurgence of the virus in the greater capital area — which has 10 times more people than Daegu — has seen health workers struggle to track transmissions and predict infection routes, where clusters have emerged around churches, restaurants, schools and other public meeting points.
The government is pressing charges against Rev Jun for allegedly disrupting disease-control efforts by ignoring orders to self-isolate, discouraging worshippers from getting tested and underreporting the church’s membership to avoid broader quarantines.
More than 200,000 people signed a petition calling for him to be detained, with President Moon also writing on Facebook to condemn church members’ attendance at the protest.
“It is a very senseless act that hampers efforts of the whole people to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. It is a clear challenge to the national disease control and prevention system, and an unforgivable act that threatens the lives of the people,” he wrote, warning the government would take “very stern and strong measures”.
Rev Jun’s lawyer, Kang Yeon-jae, has denied the accusations insisting that he only received self-isolation orders after returning home from Saturday’s rally.
The pastor has also claimed that the outbreak at his church was the result of an attack, and during Saturday’s protests accused an unspecified opponent of “pouring” the virus onto the church.
The Korean Herald reported that Rev Jun was heard telling his followers at a rally earlier this year that it was “patriotic to die from illness”, adding that “those who suffer from illness will be healed if they attend the rally”.
Prosecutors have asked a Seoul court to revoke his bail, having been indicted in March on charges of violating election laws ahead of April’s parliamentary elections by allegedly asking participants at his rallies to vote against the party of Mr Moon – who he has compared to Adolf Hitler – before the official campaigning period had started.
His bail was granted on condition that he doesn’t take part in rallies that could be related to his pending case.
Amid some clashes with police, protesters on Saturday spoke of a “revolution” against the left-wing Mr Moon, who they accused of policy failures, manipulating the April election, corruption and of being a front for the North Korean regime.
Additional reporting by agencies