Friday, February 28, 2020

Shincheonji


Reuters |  An So-young had a gut feeling that the 31st person in South Korea to test positive for the coronavirus might be a member of the controversial religious sect she quit four years ago. 

The person, dubbed “Patient 31,” was the first of an explosive wave of cases that made South Korea’s outbreak the largest outside of China. What caught An’s attention was how health authorities were struggling to track the woman’s movements before she was tested. 

“That’s their culture, they have to hide their movements, and that’s why I guessed she was with Shincheonji,” An, 27, said in an interview, referring to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. 

Patient 31 attended services at the church’s branch in the southeastern city of Daegu this month, staying for two hours each time, before testing positive on Feb. 18. 

The South Korean disease control chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said the church’s services, where thousands of people sit on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder, for hours, could have contributed to the surges. 

“You would be 5 centimeters away from the person who sits next to you, and have to say ‘Amen’ after every sentence the pastor speaks - it’s the best environment for the virus to spread,” said An, who is now a theology student. 

In a media interview, Patient 31 said she did not refuse to be tested. But health authorities said she sought care at a traditional medicine hospital in Daegu after a minor car accident, where a medical worker who treated her later tested positive for the virus. While running a fever, she went to a buffet at a hotel and the church services. 

Shincheonji is in the biggest crisis in its 36-year history, as hundreds of members have tested positive for the virus, SARS-CoV-2. All of its 210,000 known followers are being tested amid unprecedented scrutiny from authorities and the public. 

After initial resistance, the church released the addresses of 1,100 facilities around the country - 82 churches and 1,018 “affiliates,” - and asked the public to avoid making “groundless criticism.” It was the “biggest victim of the virus,” it said. 

Calls by Reuters to the church’s headquarters seeking comment went unanswered. 

During a visit to the Daegu branch on Friday, a man who identified himself as a member said he was the only one there and told Reuters that “all of our 9,000 members are taking self-quarantine measures in compliance with the government instruction.” He said the building was disinfected twice last week. 

Interactive graphic about the spread of coronavirus inside South Korea: here