World

S. Korea battles worst coronavirus outbreak in months

One of the country's new outbreaks linked to a church where more than 300 members have been infected, including its leader

SEOUL : South Korea warned yesterday of a looming coronavirus crisis as new outbreaks flared, including one linked to a church where more than 300 members of the congregation have been infected but hundreds more are reluctant to get tested.

The country reported 197 new infections yesterday, 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.

The leader of the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, who led a political rally in breach of quarantine rules, later tested positive.

The outbreak linked to his church is the country's biggest in nearly six months and led to a tightening of social distancing rules on Sunday.

South Korea has been one of the world's coronavirus mitigation success stories, but it has nevertheless battled persistent spikes in infections.

"We're seeing the current situation as an initial stage of a large-scale transmission," Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention 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."

The outbreak at the Seoul church has revived fears seen in February when the 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, the authorities are facing some reluctance to cooperate and difficulty in tracking some of the members of the congregation.

Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters earlier the Presbyterian church had provided inaccurate lists of its 4,000 members.

While nearly 320 of them had tested positive, including Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon, more than 600 whom the authorities wanted to isolate were unaccounted for.

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

"That's impossible. We can't fabricate test results," he said.

Rev Jun, leader of the church, is a conservative activist who has also been organising anti-government rallies calling for the ouster of liberal President Moon Jae-in, raising concerns that the virus has been spreading at his protests too.

Rev Jun, 64, took part in a protest on Saturday in defiance of a government order that all church members self-isolate and get tested.

His lawyers said at a news conference yesterday that Rev Jun did not violate quarantine rules nor intentionally offer incomplete lists.

Mr Kim said that if the rate of new infections did not stabilise this week, the government would tighten distancing, shut high-risk facilities and ban indoor meetings of 50 people or more and outdoor gatherings of 100 or more. - REUTERS

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