Seoul — South Korea has been lauded globally for its aggressive tracking and tracing of the new. The approach, along with widespread adherence to social distancing and mask guidance, has kept overall case and death numbers low in the country, which started grappling with the pandemic early on.
In February, a cult-likeof the first major COVID-19 outbreak in the country. The church’s followers — some 230,000 people across the country — were blamed for spreading the disease as they hid their association with the organization, even after virus clusters were linked to congregations. The secrecy hampered government efforts to track down suspected cases.
But even at the peak of the outbreak in South Korea, fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus cases were being confirmed per day.
Since May, the numbers of both newly confirmed cases and COVID-19 hospital admissions were so low that, on August 10, the U.S. military felt comfortable easing restrictions on personnel in the country.
The U.S. and South Korea even resumed conducting joint drills this week after putting them on hold due to the pandemic.
But now there’s concern the disease is making a comeback and, once again, it’s linked to a church.
August 15 is Liberation Day in South Korea, when the country marks the end of its rule under the Japanese empire. This year, the 75th anniversary, saw large public gatherings of conservatives all over the country, vocally condemning President Moon Jae-in, who they believe is too soft on North Korea and on the South’s former imperial subjugator.
Pastor Jun Kwang-hoon helped lead one of the largest rallies, in the Gwanghwamun area of central Seoul. He had been told to stay home, pending the results of a coronavirus test, but video shows him addressing the crowd without a mask on.
Since the protests, the number of new coronavirus cases confirmed daily has spiked into the triple digits. More than 600 parishioners from Jun’s Sarang Jeil Church alone have now tested positive, along with himself, his wife and his secretary.
Many within South Korea’s Christian community have refused to follow government health guidelines, and they’ve even clashed verbally and physically with health authorities trying to enforce them.
When health officials showed up to disinfect Jun’s church on Tuesday, there was a violent clash as members of the congregation blocked the workers’ entry, some even vowing to sacrifice their lives to “save” the church.
Tracking and tracing teams have been unable to reach many of the church’s congregation.
There were at least 20,000 people at the Liberation Day rally that Jun led, and many participants have yet to be identified, stoking fears that a church’s members could again be quietly spreading the virus undetected in South Korea.