South Korea coronavirus panic: Mystery over ‘secretive’ church at centre of fresh outbreak

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South Korea reported on Wednesday its highest daily rise in coronavirus cases since early March as outbreaks from churches around the capital spread, prompting a warning of a nationwide wave of infections. A total of 297 new infections mark the sixth straight day of triple-digit increases in a country that has managed to blunt several previous outbreaks. The BBC’s Seoul correspondent Laura Bicker explained that some residents have been leaving fake contact details.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Ms Bicker said: “So far they’ve been hugely successful in their track and trace system. They can track down 1,000 people in an hour.

“But the problem is when it comes to this more secretive church some of them have left fake contact details.

“Even when they are tracked down, we’ve seen footage where church members have been shouting and swearing at contact tracers so they are reluctant to comply.

“The concern is that it could be secretly spreading in this population centre and they’re looking at the brink of a major explosion in this outbreak and that’s one thing they do not want to happen.”

Nearly 90 percent of the new cases appeared in the capital, Seoul, and surrounding areas, raising concern of the rapid spread of the virus in a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing: “We’re in a desperately dangerous crisis where infections are spreading in the Seoul metropolitan area and threatening to lead to a massive nationwide transmission.

“The government cannot contain the current spread only with tracing and isolation please stay home unless you must go out.”

At least 166 of the new infections are linked to the Sarang Jeil Church, taking the number of cases from it to 623.

Authorities have mobilised some 8,500 police to trace another 600 members of the church’s congregation who should be in isolation, and they are trying to test all of its 4,000 members.

Some members of the church, which is run by a radical conservative preacher, are reluctant to come forward and get tested, or to self-isolate, officials have said.

Many of them also attended anti-government rallies in Seoul on the weekend where thousands of people gathered from across the country, raising fears infections were seeded there.

KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook said 10 people at the protests with no ties to the church had been infected and urged everyone who attended to get tested.


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Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun vowed to take legal action against the church for any attempt to disrupt tracing and testing efforts by failing to provide accurate membership lists.

At least three other smaller clusters have been traced to churches in Seoul and one to a church in the city of Yongin.

More than 50 cases have been linked to a coffee outlet in the city of Paju.

Nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffets and cyber cafes have been ordered to close in Seoul and surrounding regions.

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