In the middle of February, Korean authorities weren’t prohibiting any social or economic activities for its citizens, and it seemed that it was just a matter of days for the coronavirus outbreak to be contained. Up until that point, South Korea had registered a mere 30 cases, and for a few days it even stayed free of new infections from the dangerous virus.
However, in a couple of days, all of this changed dramatically. A month later, South Korea has more than 9,300 infected cases, with the number surging after events that unfolded in the Korean city of Daegu, located in the southeast of the country, which is now designated by authorities as a “disaster zone.”
In what has been dubbed as a “super spreader” event, a 61-year-old Korean woman, only known as “Patient 31”,
was unaware that she had the disease and went to a church service where there were more than 500 worshipers, from many different Korean regions. The woman belonged to a religious group called Shincheonji, which has more than 240 thousand followers worldwide.
Christianity is a popular religion in South Korea, as the country hosts a number of Protestant churches.
According to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, after the Shincheonji infections, South Korea entered a “totally different phase.”
As a consequence, Shincheonji, founded in 1984, and its members are now persecuted at their work places, homes, and schools. Also, there is a widespread anger towards its members in the country. Most of its members in the country have also been tested for the coronavirus, in an attempt to stop the spread.
The group’s founder, 88-year-old church leader Lee Man-hee held a press conference at the beginning of March, where he apologized over the role of Shincheonji’s members in the coronavirus outbreak.
“We made our utmost efforts but were unable to prevent it all. I seek the forgiveness of the people. I am very thankful to the government for its efforts. I also seek the forgiveness of the government.” Lee Man-hee said at the press conference.
However, most Koreans are still angry with Lee Man-hee and his organization over this incident, and some of them have even called on authorities to dissolve the Shincheonji by force.
In the past month, the religious group’s members are also facing a tirade of abuse, and are being labeled as the main culprit for the coronavirus outbreak. And this proves to be a big test for Korean society, some of Shicheonji’s members claim.
According to 32-year-old primary school teacher Yuna (whose name has been changed in order to protect her identity), aside from the Shincheonji church, the virus had been also spreading in places like call centers, malls, and other churches, too. But, after Korean media reported about the Shincheonji case, Korean society now mostly blames the religious group for the outbreak.
“After it was announced that the Patient 31 was a Shincheonji member, the flow of the mass media changed, and people started to blame and curse Shincheonji for the outbreak.” Yuna, who is based in the country, said.
“As a result, a lot of Shincheonji members were fired and persecuted, just because they are member of the religious group. Basically, Shincheonji became a synonym for the coronavirus.” she adds.
This sentiment was also echoed by the religious group in an official statement. The group claims that it has done everything in their power to stop the outbreak, and that it has provided Korean authorities with a complete list of their congregants.
“To contain the spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Shincheonji Church of Jesus provided accurate information about all congregants, affiliated locations, and trainees in Korea and abroad, and we are cooperating with all measures of the South Korean authorities by utilizing all of our capabilities, making utmost efforts for prevention and cure.” the group said in a statement.
The church also claims to have replaced their ceremonies with an online worshiping service.
Korean authorities have also been relentless in their efforts to contain the outbreak, having done massive testing of its population, and even establishing drive-through clinics, as a part of its coronavirus response. Authorities have now tested more than a quarter of a million people, including Shincheonji members, in an attempt to stop the fast-spreading disease.