Friday, February 28, 2020

South Korean Cults, Conservatives, and Coronavirus



FP |  South Korea initially seemed to have the COVID-19 epidemic under control, armed with efficient bureaucracy and state-of-the-art technology. However, since Feb. 18, the number of coronavirus cases in South Korea has exploded to more than 1,700 as of Thursday. The battle plan against the epidemic was derailed by the oldest of problems: religion and politics.

When it came to preparation, it helped that South Korea had one hell of a practice run: the MERS outbreak in 2015 that caused 38 deaths. At the time, the incompetent response by the conservative administration of then President Park Geun-hye put South Korea in the ignominious position of having the greatest number of cases outside of the Middle East. The fallout, which contributed to the public distrust of government that culminated in Park’s impeachment and removal, pushed the South Korean government to significantly revamp its preparation for the next viral event.

South Korea has been preparing for a potential new strain of coronavirus since as early as November 2019. Without knowing what virus would hit the country next, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) devised an ingenious method of testing for any type of coronavirus and eliminating known strains of coronavirus such as SARS or MERS to isolate the new variant of coronavirus.

For the first four weeks of the outbreak, South Korea marshaled high-tech resources to respond aggressively while promoting transparency. The government tracked the movements of travelers arriving from China, for example by tracking the use of credit cards, checking CCTV footage, or mandating they download an app to report their health status every day. For those infected, the government published an extremely detailed list of their whereabouts, down to which seat they sat in at a movie theater.

The info was also presented (with names removed) in an interactive website that allows the public to trace the movement of every single individual with coronavirus. To be sure, there were real privacy concerns—as when one unfortunate patient in Daejeon had news of their visit to a risqué lingerie store blasted to every smartphone in their city. Yet on balance, these disclosures did much to calm the nerves and prevent unnecessary panic in the population. By Feb. 17, South Korea’s tally of COVID-19 patients stood at 30, with zero deaths. Ten patients were fully cured and discharged, with some of the discharged patients declaring the disease was “not something as serious as one might think.” The government seemed ready to declare victory.

That all came to a crashing halt last week thanks to the 31st case. Patient No. 31, discovered on Feb. 18, was a member of a quasi-Christian cult called Shincheonji, one of the many new religious movements in the country. Founded in 1984, Shincheonji (whose official name is Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony) means “new heaven and earth,” a reference to the Book of Revelation. Its founder Lee Man-hee claims to be the second coming of Jesus who is to establish the “new spiritual Israel” at the end of days. The cult is estimated to have approximately 240,000 followers, and claims to have outposts in 29 countries in addition to South Korea.

Shincheonji’s bad theology makes for worse public health. Shincheonji teaches illness is a sin, encouraging its followers to suffer through diseases to attend services in which they sit closely together, breathing in spittle as they repeatedly amen in unison. If they were off on their own, that might be one thing—but according to Shin Hyeon-uk, a pastor who formerly belonged to the cult, Shincheonji believes in “deceptive proselytizing,” approaching potential converts without disclosing their denomination. Shincheonji convinces its members to cover their tracks, providing a prearranged set of answers to give when anyone asks if they belong to the cult. Often, even family members are in the dark about whether someone is a Shincheonji follower. The net effect is that Shincheonji followers infect each other easily, then go onto infect the community at large.

It is not yet clear exactly how Shincheonji cultists were infected with COVID-19 in the first instance. (KCDC said Patient No. 31 is likely not the first Shincheonji follower to be infected, given the timeline of her symptoms.) Although investigations are still pending, South Korean authorities have been focusing on the funeral of the brother of Shincheonji’s founder held in early February. Shincheonji has 19 churches in China, including in Wuhan, and it may be possible that followers from around the world attended the funeral.