The South Korean city of Daegu was facing an “unprecedented crisis” after coronavirus infections that centred on a controversial “cult” church surged to 38 cases, accounting for nearly half of the country’s total.
The city of 2.5 million people, which is two hours south of the capital Seoul, was turned into a ghost town after health officials said the bulk of country’s 31 new cases announced on Thursday were linked to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
“We are in an unprecedented crisis,” Daegu’s mayor, Kwon Young-jin, told reporters.
He ordered the shutdown of all kindergartens and public libraries, according to the news agency Yonhap. Schools in the city were considering postponing the beginning of the spring term scheduled for early March.
Shopping malls and movie theatres were empty and the usually busy city centre streets were quiet. A concert featuring BTS and other K-pop stars that was set for Daegu Stadium on 8 March has been postponed.
The defence ministry banned troops stationed in Daegu from leaving their barracks and receiving guests. The US military imposed similar restrictions on its army base in the city, which houses thousands of troops, family members and civilian employees, curbing travel and closing schools and child care centres.
In what the Korean centre for disease control called a “super spreader” event, almost half of the country’s total of 82 infections have been linked to a 61-year-old woman who worships at the Daegu church, an entity often accused of being a cult.
She first developed a fever on 10 February but reportedly twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds that she had not recently travelled abroad. She attended at least four services before being diagnosed.
So far, 37 other members of the church have been confirmed as infected.
Seemingly overnight, the public attitude toward the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea has gone from simmering apprehension to full-blown paranoia. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city, with a population of 2.5 million people - roughly one-tenth of the South's total population.
As the South Korean government debates whether to raise the alert level, the mayor of Daegu has asked all of the city's residents to avoid venturing outside as the government tracks down, tests and quarantines all the members of a church where an infected woman is believed to have spread the virus to more than 40 people.
As a result, the usually bustling streets of Daegu have suddenly gone quiet: Residents who spoke to Reuters described empty streets in the city center, deserted storefronts and a pervasive "climate of fear".
On social media, some Koreans are trying to inject a little levity into the conversation. Following a news report where a local described the environment as "a Zombie Apocalypse", some posted clips from the infamous Korean zombie movie "Train to Busan."
#45 - Train To Busan (2016)
"While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan." pic.twitter.com/gwd7GaIdGN
The most crowded streets in the city were abandoned.
"It’s like someone dropped a bomb in the middle of the city. It looks like a zombie apocalypse," Kim Geun-woo, a 28-year-old resident told Reuters by telephone.
"Even Dongseong-ro Street - the most crowded centre of the city – is empty," he said, adding that he had tried to buy surgical masks but shops were sold out.
The country's outbreak isn't isolated to Daegu: Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 53 new cases on Thursday, after reporting 20 new cases a day earlier, bringing the country-wide total to 104. But Daegu and the surrounding area definitely has the largest share of cases. Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 70 patients are from Daegu or nearby, and the majority have been traced to an infected 61-year-old woman, known in the SK media as "Patient 31".
Authorities released some new information Thursday about the South Korean patient who succumbed to the virus was reportedly one of 13 infected patients at a hospital near Daegu. Health officials said they were investigating whether there were links between his death and the outbreak at the Church. The hospital where they were staying is being temporarily shuttered and more than 600 staff and patients are being tested for the virus.
In a strange twist, the Guardian reported Thursday that the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the church at the center of Daegu's outbreak, is part of a "controversial cult". The alleged super spread who infected dozens of others at the church first developed a fever on Feb. 10 but reportedly twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds that she had not recently travelled abroad. This allowed her to attend at least 4 church services before being isolated, the Guardian reports.
Daegu’s municipal government said there were 1,001 church members in the city, all of whom have been asked to 'self-quarantine'. 90 of them currently showing symptoms.
Unlike Chinese officials, who have sought to play down the severity of the outbreak at every turn, Korean officials have warned that the situation is "very grave", and urged the Korean people to take care. Daegu's mayor has postponed the beginning of South Korea's spring semester by one week into March, an unprecedented move.
Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin told residents to stay indoors as he warned of likely further cases.
"We are in an unprecedented crisis," he said at a briefing in the city, about 240 km (150 miles) southwest of the capital Seoul.
Kwon cautioned that at least 90 more of the about 1,000 other people who attended services at the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony were also showing symptoms.
"We plan to test all believers of that church and have asked them to stay at home isolated from their families,"Kwon said.
South Korea’s vice health minister Kim Kang-lip said at a separate briefing in the administrative city of Sejong that the situation was "very grave."
Research released over the past week has confirmed that COVID-19 is more infectious than SARS and MERS. Now, thanks to China's failures, Seoul is going to need to develop a plan to stop the outbreak and heal the damage to their already-suffering economy, which has been hurt by rising trade tensions with Japan.