SEOUL • South Korea’s health authorities warned yesterday that a cluster of coronavirus infections in the capital Seoul was threatening to spread after thousands of people attended a massive rally against President Moon Jae-in on Aug 15.
While many of the cases in the current spike have been among members of a church – some of whom attended the rally – officials said more people need to come forward and be tested to head off an uncontrollable outbreak.
Amid government complaints that some churches had not been cooperating with health officials and were flouting social distancing instructions, President Moon yesterday called for penalties for anyone obstructing anti-virus measures, including those conducting “all-out misinformation campaigns”.
Mr Moon’s office said it would be implementing an emergency response system, including high-level meetings every morning and 24-hour work schedules, until the crisis has passed.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 324 new cases as of Thursday midnight, the highest daily count since March 8. The country now has 16,670 cases, with 309 deaths.
While most of the new cases are in Seoul and the surrounding areas, new cases have also been reported in 16 provinces and metropolitan areas, said the director of the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are very worried about a possible nationwide outbreak,” said Ms Jeong Eun-kyeong.
The government is trying to gather the names of everyone who attended last week’s rally, as well as the names of the drivers who drove attendees from the provinces, Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a separate briefing.
Health investigators and police had obtained the mobile phone location data of at least 12,000 people who had been in the area, and were seeking to convince the Sarang Jeil Church to hand over a full list of its members, the vice-health minister said.
Last night, police executed a search warrant at the church’s office to gather membership lists, church official Lee Dong-ho told Reuters. Some church members, who are vocal critics of the Moon administration, have accused the government of conducting a politically motivated witch hunt.
As of Thursday, 739 people linked to the church were confirmed positive for the virus, the health authorities said. Some Sarang Jeil Church members say the government is fabricating the test results as part of a plot to persecute them.
If the new infection numbers in South Korea do not fall over the weekend, the government could impose its strictest rules, including closing schools, Ms Jeong said.
Meanwhile, Mr Moon’s approval rating rose for the first time in three months after he took on the Sarang Jeil Church – a rating jump similar to one in March when he confronted another controversial religious group, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, over an outbreak.
Mr Moon’s support surged 8 percentage points to 47 per cent in a weekly tracking poll released yesterday by Gallup Korea. It was the highest level since mid-July and up from a record low last week.