SEOUL – Barely more than a week ago, South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak appeared to be contained as the number of confirmed infections stabilized at 30. Sensing a turning tide, many Seoul residents took off their surgical masks and resumed riding the subway and shopping at malls.
Then, on Feb. 17, a 31st case surfaced at a health clinic in Daegu, a city about 150 miles (240 km) south of the capital where the vast majority of known infections were located. An unidentified 61-year-old woman, who lived there and occasionally commuted to Seoul, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
It seemed like a standard case until public health authorities started tracing the patient’s tracks. What they learned shocked them. The woman had, during the previous 10 days, attended two worship services with at least 1,000 other members of her secretive religious sect whose leader says the end of days is coming.
Within 24 hours, the nation’s number of confirmed cases started multiplying exponentially. The tally rose by 20 during that period, doubled the following day and then doubled again on the third day.
By Thursday, the count skyrocketed to almost 1,600 — a more than fiftyfold increase in a week that prompted the government to raise its health alert to the highest level. At least half of the new cases are linked to the sect, called the Shincheonji, which translates to “new heaven and land” and whose members worship side by side in cramped spaces.
“What made this case so much worse was that this person spent a considerable amount of time in a very crowded area,” said Kim Chang-yup, a professor for health policy at Seoul National University. “There’s growing fear and resentment among the people right now.”
South Korea’s health ministry has launched a manhunt for more than 212,000 members whose names were provided by the sect. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control & Prevention already is screening 9,300 sect members, in addition to those who attended the two services.
Yoo Il-han, a former member who runs a counseling center for those wanting to leave the group, said health officials will have a difficult time tracking people down. The sect is protective of its members and warns that Satan will use their families to try to influence them.
“Concealment is the key,” he said. “They tell you: Don’t tell anyone, including your family members, what you believe in, and don’t believe what you see about Shincheonji online.”
Patient 31 first checked into the Saeronan Chinese Medicine Hospital on Feb. 7, complaining of headaches after being involved in a car accident the day before. According to the hospital, the patient didn’t have any record of traveling overseas or have any known contact with a coronavirus patient. She also didn’t have any fever, cough or respiratory symptoms.
On the third day of being hospitalized, the patient developed a fever and received a flu test, which came back negative, according to the hospital.
The next day, she left the hospital for two hours to attend a morning service at the Shincheonji church in southern Daegu, according to Korea’s CDC. It is common in South Korea for hospital patients to come and go — even walking outside wearing hospital garb and wheeling intravenous drips alongside them.
The woman also had lunch with a friend at a hotel in eastern Daegu on Feb. 15 and attended another Shincheonji worship service on Feb. 16, the national health authorities said.
It wasn’t until Feb. 17, as her condition worsened and a scan showed signs of pneumonia, that doctors were prompted to test for the coronavirus. Ten days after she first set foot in a hospital, her infection was confirmed after a diagnosis at a public health clinic.
Health officials in South Korea still don’t know how she was infected or how she spread the virus to fellow Shincheonji members.
The religious movement was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, now 88, who claims to be an immortal prophet sent by Jesus Christ. It counts about 300,000 followers in 29 countries, including the U.S. and China.
The secretive group is a sprawling network so wealthy it can mobilize thousands of believers to hold Pyongyang-style mass performances at Seoul’s Olympic stadium.
Shincheonji — in full the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony — describes itself on its website as “the one and only kingdom and temple of God on this earth,” pledging to yield to the will of Jesus “by sacrificing our bodies like a candle.”
Shincheonji proclaims Lee will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgment. With more church members than available places in heaven, they are said to have to compete for slots and pursue converts.
It seeks recruits surreptitiously by dispatching its members to mainstream Protestant congregations to try to persuade their believers — a tactic that has prompted many churches to issue warnings to keep them at bay.
At their services, Shincheonji members are forbidden to wear glasses, necklaces and earrings. They sit close together on the floor, praying extensively.
Shincheonji has 12 branches in South Korea that it calls “the 12 Tribes,” each named after one of Jesus’ disciples. It says that it has mission centers in 15 countries around the world, including China and the United States, and that hundreds of pastors have renounced their ordinations to join it.
Shincheonji has been so successful that it has been able to mobilize thousands of followers to hold mass displays at high-profile venues — such as Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium in 2012, home to the 1988 Games.
Hundreds of performers enacted biblical scenes and motifs on the field while — just like North Korea’s Mass Games — thousands turned the colored pages of books in sequence, creating an ever-changing backdrop of giant images rippling across one side of the stadium.
The group’s emphasis on continually gathering for worship, recruitment and other activities may be the root cause of the cascading number of infections among Lee’s disciples, said Stella Kang, a former sect member.
At the two worship services attended by patient No. 31, more than 1,000 people sat on the floor, elbow to elbow and knee to knee, for as long as two hours.
“Their belief system is that the end time is coming soon and our physical body is not as important,” Kang said. “So even if you are really sick, you have to go to the church because that gives you the word of life.”
The group’s website previously said it had opened a church last year in China’s Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, though that detail subsequently was removed. The sect later said it had moved all services in Wuhan online in 2018.
Separately, authorities are trying to determine whether patient 31 is connected to an outbreak at another hospital outside Daegu, where a funeral for the brother of the sect’s leader was held earlier this month.
In South Korea, funerals often are carried out at a facility adjacent to a hospital, and attendees eat and drink together in a nearby room. Many funeral homes, which resemble conference centers, have multiple services taking place simultaneously within their complexes.
Alarmed by a sudden surge in infections not seen since the swine flu epidemic that killed 250 people in South Korea in 2009, the government elevated the national health alert to its highest level.
Schools postponed reopening, the military banned leaves and visits, and companies began canceling events and implementing work-at-home policies. More than a dozen countries subsequently banned or restricted the entry of South Korean nationals.
“The Daegu incident has certainly raised public awareness of the need for social distancing,” Kim said.
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