South Korea’s coronavirus cases nearly doubled on Friday, rising above 200 and making it the worst-affected country outside China as the number of infections linked to a religious sect spiked.
A total of 100 new cases were confirmed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 of them connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu.
More than 120 members of Shincheonji have now been infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10 but attended at least four church services before being diagnosed.
The mayor of Daegu — South Korea’s fourth-biggest city, with a population of over 2.5 million — has advised locals to stay indoors, while access to a major US military base in the area has been restricted.
People were out and about on the streets on Friday, with most wearing masks, but many businesses were closed due to the outbreak.
Workers on motorcycles sprayed disinfectant outside the Shincheonji church in the city, where passer-by Seo Dong-min, 24, told AFP, “With so many confirmed cases here I’m worried that Daegu will become the second Wuhan,” referring to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.
Shincheonji is often accused of being a cult and claims its founder, Lee Man-hee, has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement.
But with more church members than available places in heaven, they are said to have to compete for slots and pursue converts persistently and secretively.
The KCDC said one more virus case had been confirmed at a hospital in Cheongdo county near Daegu where a total of 16 infections have now been identified, including a long-stay patient who died Wednesday after showing symptoms of pneumonia.
Cheongdo is the birthplace of Shincheonji’s founder Lee, and county officials said a three-day funeral was held for his brother three weeks ago at a hall owned by the hospital.
President Moon Jae-in called for a “thorough investigation” of everyone who attended the funeral and Shincheonji services.