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US News South Korea is on high alert after a coronavirus outbreak. Here's how a secretive sect became the perfect incubator

08:25  24 february  2020
08:25  24 february  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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In the space of a week South Korea has gone from dealing with a couple of dozen COVID-19 cases to being the next frontier for containing coronavirus.

With seven deaths already, rapidly multiplying cases and a government scrambling to respond, there are concerns this is just the beginning, and things are about to get a whole lot worse.

And what has experts worried the most is how rapidly the number of infections has grown.

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In the middle of last week South Korea's efforts were still aimed at preventing people with the virus coming into the country from China.

a group of people walking on a city street: South Koreans are still out and about in Seoul — though most people are wearing face masks as a precaution. (ABC News: Brant Cumming) © Provided by ABC NEWS South Koreans are still out and about in Seoul — though most people are wearing face masks as a precaution. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)

Back then, there were just a few dozen cases. But by Friday, that number had soared above 200.

Now the country has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases outside China.

In response, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has raised the highest alert level for infectious diseases, delaying the return of schools and deploying extra resources to the main outbreak zone in the southern city of Daegu.

But unlike the heavy-handed lockdowns imposed in China, Mr Moon is yet to enforce traffic blocks, and is urging cooperation from religious groups to contain the outbreak.

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"The next several days will be very critical," he said.

How did this all unfold?

Many of the 763 cases relate to a secretive religious sect and an alleged "super spreader" reportedly dubbed a "public harm auntie" by angry South Koreans for ignoring advice to get tested.

Chung Sye-kyun, Moon Jae-in sitting at a desk: South Korea on highest alert as virus cases rise © Getty Images South Korea on highest alert as virus cases rise

"We have vividly witnessed how dangerous it is to have mass meetings in an enclosed indoor place in terms of the spread of a contagious disease," Mr Moon said.

"I urge everyone to restrain themselves from group events or activities, not only in indoor places, but also outdoor places which can harm others — the people of the country."

A 61-year-old worshipper at the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu — a city of 2.5 million— tested positive on February 18.

Photos: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak (Picture Services)

And while authorities don't know how she contracted the virus, many South Koreans are blaming her for spreading it.

The unnamed woman has become the subject of an intense witch hunt, with many online calling her "reckless", "evil" and "crazy".

She's been criticised for reportedly ignoring symptoms, attending the church twice, lunching with friends and initially refusing to be tested for the virus because she hadn't recently travelled abroad.

The doomsday cult being blamed for helping the virus spread

But her church also contributes to the public angst.

Mainstream Christian churches in South Korea often deride the Shincheonji church as a doomsday cult, and followers sometimes even hide their membership from family members. The founder claims to be the second coming of Jesus.

Authorities say the style of worship — tightly packed congregations where worshippers kneel close together — means cases among followers will continue to rise.

Shincheonji Church of Jesus worshipers are also forbidden from wearing glasses and face masks during prayer services, which may have helped the virus spread.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 24: A disinfection professional wears protective gear spray anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market on February 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea has raised the coronavirus alert to the © 2020 Getty Images SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 24: A disinfection professional wears protective gear spray anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market on February 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea has raised the coronavirus alert to the "highest level" as confirmed case numbers keep rising. Government reported 161 new cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) bringing the total number of infections in the nation to 763, with the potentially fatal illness spreading fast across the country. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"We cannot help but express our regrets at the deliberate slander as media reports continuously claiming that we are intentionally covering up the situation", church spokesman Simon Kim said.

"We handed over a complete list of devotee names of the Daegu branch of the church to health authorities, but the list was leaked."

Mr Kim claimed devotees faced discrimination as a result of the leak.

Other Christian groups have come into focus too, with a Catholic group testing positive after arriving back in South Korea from a religious pilgrimage to Israel.

A test for how other governments respond to the outbreak

As cases began to mount around Daegu, South Korea's Government banned religious and political rallies in Seoul, saying group gatherings could spread the virus.

But thousands of Christian protesters from another church defied the order, turning up for a weekly rally against the government in the capital.

In some ways, this is being seen as a key test for how a country with far greater civil liberties than China responds.

A woman wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus shops at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji © Thomson Reuters A woman wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus shops at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

With its declaration of the highest level red alert, South Korea's Government now has the ability to shut down the roads leading in and out of Daegu.

But as of Monday, they remained open while trains to the city also continued to run.

The World Health Organisation has warned the window for containing the virus outside of China is becoming more narrow.

As the numbers of infections continue to rise, the pressure on Mr Moon's government for firmer action will only increase.

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