DAEGU, South Korea (Reuters) - The malls and restaurants in Daegu were empty and streets eerily quiet on Friday after the number of cases of coronavirus in South Korea doubled overnight to 204, almost all of them in and around the fourth largest city.
Many of the infections were traced to a 61-year-old woman, identified as “Patient 31” who had attended services at a church in the city, which, along with a funeral attended by several members of the same church, created what health authorities have called a “super-spreading event”.
A second coronavirus patient, a woman in her fifties, died on Friday after being moved from Daegu to South Korea’s second-largest city Busan for treatment, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Scrambling to respond to one of the largest clusters of infection outside China, the government designated Daegu and neighboring Cheongdo County “special care zones”, with plans to send in military medical staff and other health workers, and extra resources, including hospital beds.
To take some pressure off hospitals, there were also plans to set up isolation facilities.
In Seoul, there would be a ban on holding large demonstrations that often take place at the weekend, Mayor Park Won-soon said.
Several members of the military tested positive for the virus after coming into contact with residents in the Daegu area, prompting Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to ban all personnel from taking leave, confining troops to barracks.
Many of the initial patients in South Korea reported to have contracted the flu-like virus have since recovered, but the sudden and rapid spread in recent days raised alarm.
The won currency had its worst week in more than four years and the government’s benchmark 10-year bond yield suffered its sharpest fall in more than seven years.
“THE DEVIL’S DEED”
Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin called it an “unprecedented crisis” for the city of 2.5 million people, advising residents to stay home and warning any kind of mass gathering would be banned.
Some people ventured out, most wearing masks, in many parts of the city. But the streets were largely deserted around the suspected location of the outbreak, a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
As of Friday more than 500 members of the church were showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still being carried out, authorities said.
“This disease case is seen as the devil’s deed to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji,” the founder and self-proclaimed messiah of the church, Lee Man-hee, said in a message on an internal app used by members, urging them to overcome the virus.
“Just like the tests Job went through, it is to destroy our advancement,” he wrote in the message, images of which were published by Yonhap news agency.
Eggs had been thrown at the gate of the shuttered church, where “no entry” signs had been posted.
In a statement, the church said it had conducted prevention measures at 74 of its branches and churches across the country and all its facilities had been closed since Tuesday.
Seoul’s Mayor Park Won-soon said the Shincheonji churches would be locked down in the capital.
President Moon Jae-in called for officials to investigate the church services, as well as a funeral service in nearby Cheongdo County for the brother of the founder of the church.
Many church members had attended the funeral at the hospital, where another cluster of coronavirus cases is located, and where South Korea’s first victim of the virus died.
“We need a thorough investigation on the church and the funeral attendees,” Moon said.
Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Janet Lawrence and Christina Fincher
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