SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea, which had effectively contained one of the world’s first coronavirus outbreaks, is seeing a COVID-19 resurgence, with officials warning the country could be on the verge of another large-scale eruption.
Health authorities reported 197 cases Monday - the fourth consecutive day of triple digit new infections. That represents a major setback after having kept daily new cases mostly in the low-to-mid double digits for more than four months.
The outbreak is especially concerning since most of the new cases are in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to more than half of the country’s population. Seoul was not hit hardest by South Korea’s first COVID-19 surge, which was centered around the southeastern city of Daegu in late February and early March.
Though the number of daily infections is still much lower than in the spring, authorities warn the current outbreak could be more dangerous. That is in part because the virus is spreading in multiple locations, whereas the country’s spring outbreak mainly stemmed from a single religious community.
“We are seeing cluster infections simultaneously and sporadically at various venues,” including churches, cafes, and restaurants, said Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip during a Monday briefing. “These are the initial signs of a large-scale infection."
South Korea won widespread praise for its coronavirus containment, which utilized widespread and immediate testing, data-driven contact tracing, and quick isolation of those impacted. As a result, South Korea’s economy never fully closed and, in many ways, life has continued as normal.
Now, authorities are asking residents to stay at home as much as possible for two weeks. They have banned indoor gatherings of more than 50 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. Sporting events like baseball games, which had only recently begun allowing a small number of fans, will once again play in empty stadiums.
The virus is especially spreading at churches. The worst outbreak has been at the Sarang Jeil Church, a Presbyterian megachurch in Seoul, where 312 cases have been identified. Authorities are trying to test about 4,000 members of the church, but so far have only tested half that number and say they are having difficulty locating other congregants they suspect may be carrying the virus.
The church’s firebrand pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, is a prominent critic of South Korea’s left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in and has repeatedly spurned the government’s coronavirus prevention measures.
Though large gatherings are banned because of COVID-19 concerns, Pastor Jun appeared at a major anti-government rally in downtown Seoul over the weekend, where he complained the government had “poured the virus” on his church.
At his briefing Monday, Vice Health Minister Kim warned against “false rumors” that the government is intentionally making church members’ coronavirus test results positive. “The PCR testing cannot be manipulated,” Kim said. “If you don't get tested, you will put at risk the health and safety of your loved ones and neighbors.”
Authorities say some Sarang Jeil Church members attended the rallies Saturday, which attracted an estimated 10,000 people.
In a Facebook message Sunday, President Moon vowed “very stern and strong” measures in response to the gatherings.
The church’s activities are prompting public anger. An online petition calling for Pastor Jun to be detained had collected at least 200,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
The situation in some ways is like earlier this year, when many South Koreans blamed the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a fringe religious group, for not cooperating fully with health authorities. Some members of the church, which served as the center of the first wave of the virus, went into hiding amid the criticism.
The Sarang Jeil Church is considered more mainstream. But amid the public backlash, its leaders continue to hit back, with some members on Monday accusing Moon of conducting a “religious witch hunt.”
Later Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing health officials, reported that Pastor Jun had contracted COVID-19.