February 21, 2020
South Korea has stepped up measures to contain the spread of the deadly new coronavirus, as confirmed infections rose sharply for a second day.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said it was now an emergency situation.
The southern cities of Daegu and Cheongdo have been declared “special care zones”. The streets of Daegu are now largely abandoned.
South Korea has also locked down its military after several soldiers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The authorities have also told about 9,000 members of a religious group to self quarantine, after the sect was identified as a coronavirus hotbed.
On Friday, the country reported 52 new confirmed cases after 53 on Thursday. South Korea now has a total of 156 cases making it the largest cluster outside mainland China and the cruise ship docked off Japan.
Authorities confirmed the country’s first death from the virus in Cheongdo earlier this week.
The man was a long-term patient at a mental health facility, where alongside him another 14 patients have also tested positive.
The new virus, which originated last year in Hubei province in China, causes a respiratory disease called Covid-19.
What measures are being taken?
From the 52 new cases reported on Friday, 41 are in Daegu, a city 300km (186 miles) south-east of the capital Seoul, and 39 of those are from a cluster involving a religious sect.
Reacting to the quickly deteriorating situation, the government promised swift measures to prevent further spread of the virus.
“It is urgent to find people who have contacted infected people and cure patients,” PM Chung said, according to news agency Yonhap.
He said the government was readying resources like sickbeds, medical equipment and health workers and warned the virus was now spreading locally.
“The government has so far focused on curbing infections coming from outside the country. From now on, the government will further prioritise preventing the virus from spreading locally.”
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said authorities would allow hospitals to isolate respiratory patients from others in an effort to prevent any spread within medical institutions.
He also said that all pneumonia patients in Daegu hospitals would be checked for the virus.
What happened in Daegu?
The city’s biggest cluster appears to be at a branch of a religious sect which calls itself the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
South Korean health officials believe these infections are linked to a 61-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus earlier this week.
The Shincheonji, which has been accused of being a cult, said it had now shut down its Daegu branch and that services in other regions would be held online or individually at home.
Daegu is the country’s fourth-largest city and its streets are now largely abandoned as the 2.5 million residents are asked to remain at home after authorities have described the church cluster as “super-spreading event”.
As of Friday, more than 400 members of the church were showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, the city mayor said.
What about China and elsewhere?
The latest figures from China put the death toll from the disease at 2,236 people and total infections at more than 75,000.
The virus has also spread around the globe with more than 1,000 cases and several deaths in the rest of Asia, in Europe, the US and Africa.
South Korea is now the worst affected country after mainland China and the more than 600 infections on a cruise ship docked in Japan.
Passengers of the Diamond Princess who have tested negative continue to disembark the ship in Yokohama after more than 14 days quarantined on board.
More than 150 Australian passengers have been evacuated from the ship and have already arrived in Darwin, where they will begin two more weeks of quarantine.
Australian officials said on Friday that six people had reported feeling unwell on arrival in Darwin and were immediately tested.
Two of those people tested positive despite having received negative tests before leaving Japan.
The first batch of people from Hong Kong have also flown back to the city, where they will similarly be quarantined.