In South Korea, Over 200 Are Now Infected With The New Coronavirus

Feb 21, 2020
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than 200 people are now infected with coronavirus in South Korea according to officials there, and at least two people there have died. That makes it the country with the second highest number of infected people after China. And a significant number of infections can be found among the congregation of one secretive South Korean church. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following the outbreak from Seoul. He joins us now.

Anthony, first, tell us more about the virus in South Korea and where this concentration of cases is.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Well, the numbers have doubled for two straight days, and it's really taken people by surprise. And one reason for that is that they thought that they had managed to keep the virus out of the country. And then suddenly, it pops up in the country's heartland, in the fourth largest city called Daegu, about 150 miles southeast of the country. And as you said, most of the cases are related to this rather secretive church called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Its followers believe the founder is the Messiah. They have these large church services where people are at close quarters. And another thing that distinguishes them is that they spend a lot of time out on the streets proselytizing, which people believe may present a lot of opportunities for the virus to spread.

Now authorities are tracking down all the members of this church group, and 500 of them have reported that they have symptoms of the coronavirus. So there's a lot of room for the numbers to grow.

CORNISH: Five-hundred - do health officials know how the illness got to South Korea?

KUHN: Well, the earlier cases had pretty clear links to China. The recent ones do not. And that worries them when they don't know where it comes from. The government is saying that there's a transition going on. There's a shift from keeping the virus out of the country to working at the community level to prevent local transmission. So that's going to have a bigger impact on people's lives. It's going to mean a lot more people staying off the streets and a lot less commercial activity.

CORNISH: Can you tell us more about how the government is responding? I mean, especially, as you described, this group is secretive, right?

KUHN: Yes. Well, this church group has many congregations around the country and branches overseas. So in South Korea, they've been shut down, and they're trying to track down all the members. You know, South Korea is an affluent economy. It has an excellent public health care system. But the system in Daegu is strained. They're running short of hospital beds and doctors and equipment and supplies. So the government has designated it a special zone, and they're trying to get extra equipment there. There are infections in the military, and so conscription in that area has ended. They're restricting the movement of soldiers. And there's also a U.S. military base in Daegu, and they're restricting access, too.

CORNISH: In the meantime, in general, are things shutting down? Is it essentially too early in the outbreak for that level of worry among the public?

KUHN: Well, Daegu is pretty much clear of people. The streets are empty. Seoul has been subdued for weeks. Mass events have been postponed. Rallies in downtown Seoul, which are a feature of the political scene here, have been canceled. The main fear here is that the government will lose control of things. It'll get out of hand. Interesting to note that the World Health Organization says right now, South Korea's caseload is manageable. This is not a sign that this is going to become a global pandemic. And they actually have an opportunity, a window of opportunity before the caseload really takes off and the thing starts to spread within the country.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul.

Thank you.

KUHN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.