Coronavirus: South Korean sect identified as hotbed

Workers spray disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. Photo: 19 February 2020
Workers has been disinfecting the area around the Daegu branch of the religious group

A religious group in South Korea has been identified as a coronavirus hotbed, officials say, amid a sharp rise in confirmed cases in the country.

The infections among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (Shincheonji) are linked to one woman.

The sect in the city of Daegu accounts for 30 of 53 new cases, with officials warning of an unprecedented crisis.

South Korea also confirmed its first death from the disease Covid-19.

The coronavirus, which originated in China’s Hubei province, causes pneumonia-like symptoms.

China has now seen 2,118 deaths and recorded nearly 75,000 infections.

On Thursday, Japan said two of its passengers who contracted the coronavirus on board quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess had died. The man and the woman were in their 80s.

What about the outbreak among sect members?

South Korean health officials believe that the infections are linked to a 61-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus earlier this week.

The Korean Centre for Disease Control says the woman – who has not been identified – had contact with 166 people, who were asked to self-quarantine.

At least 30 of the new Covid-19 infections were on Thursday recorded among sect members in Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million people in the south-east.

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.

The mayor of the city has described the event as an “unprecedented crisis” and urged people in the city to stay indoors. Commanders on a nearby US military base also imposed access restrictions, news agency AFP reported.

What is the Shincheonji?

Shincheonji founder Lee Man-hee. File photo
Shincheonji founder Lee Man-hee says he is “the promised pastor”
  • Religious organisation founded in 1984 by South Korean national Lee Man-hee
  • Lee, now in his 80s, describes himself as “the promised pastor” mentioned in the Bible
  • Followers are taught to believe that Lee is the second coming of Jesus Christ
  • Shincheonji is the abbreviation from Korean of “New Heaven and New Earth”
  • Reportedly has more than 120,000 members around the world
  • Accused of being a cult, and has been involved in controversies in several countries

What’s the overall picture in South Korea?

The number of confirmed cases now stands at 104.

New cases were also reported in the capital Seoul and the nearby North Gyeongsang province.

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Meanwhile, the authorities revealed that a man died on Wednesday from pneumonia believed to have been caused by the coronavirus.

The 63-year-old man – who has not been publicly named – died in hospital in the south-eastern city of Cheongdo.

He was among 15 people at the hospital who had earlier tested positive for the virus.

The victim had been bedridden for more than 20 years at the hospital, Yonhap news agency reports.

What’s the latest from the Diamond Princess ship?

The ocean liner was carrying 3,700 people in total and passengers who tested negative for the virus began leaving the ship on Wednesday after a 14-day quarantine.

Hundreds have now disembarked from the cruise liner docked in Yokohama. Others are set to leave over the next two days.

Workers in protective gear escort disembarking passengers to a vehicle from the Diamond Princess cruise ship
Hundreds of passengers from the ship are making their way home

More than 150 Australian passengers have already arrived in Darwin, where they will begin two weeks of quarantine.

The first batch of people from Hong Kong have also flown back to the city, where they will similarly be quarantined.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britons stranded on the ship would be able to board an evacuation flight home on Friday, as long as they were not showing symptoms of the virus.

Indonesia is also set to repatriate its citizens.

In other developments:

  • Chinese nationals were barred from entering Russia as of Thursday as a precautionary measure
  • Australia extended until 29 February its ban on international arrivals who had been to China
  • Residents in central Ukraine blocked roads to try to stop a planeload of coronavirus evacuees from China being quarantined there

And what about China?

China reported 114 new deaths on Wednesday but the number of new infections recorded was 394 compared with 1,749 on Tuesday.

There are more than 1,000 cases outside China, including on Diamond Princess and in Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Iran says two people infected with the virus have died in the city of Qom – the first reported deaths in the Middle East.

Doctors examining patient in Wuhan
China says the virus mostly kills the sick and elderly

On Wednesday, Hong Kong said a 70-year-old man with underlying illnesses had become the territory’s second fatality.

Japan has three deaths attributed to the virus, while France, the Philippines and Taiwan have each reported one death.

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