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What COVID-19 Cases Look Like In South Korea


China has the most coronavirus cases in the world, and now South Korea is second. Today, it recorded its biggest daily increase so far. There are 433 cases. Around half of those are tied to one church group, which authorities are now investigating as they try to prevent more infections. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul. Anthony, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: What's going on with this outbreak?

KUHN: Well, the epicenter of the outbreak is now Daegu, which is South Korea's fourth-largest city. The streets there are pretty much deserted. The government has told 2.5 million residents there to stay at home, and they're doing it. Meanwhile, Daegu's hospitals are hard-pressed for medical equipment, doctors and drugs. And so the central government is sending them. Then there's a county hospital outside Daegu, which has about a quarter of the country's cases. And South Korea saw its third fatality from the virus today, which has continued to spread to other cities and provinces. And it's about the fourth day in a row that cases have doubled. And that has people here very jittery.

SIMON: And, Anthony, please tell us about this church that seems to be at the center of the outbreak. It's considered controversial.

KUHN: Yes, it's called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Shincheonji means new heaven and earth, and it was founded in the 1980s by a charismatic pastor named Lee Man-hee. And his followers believe that he is the messiah. Some people call this a religious movement. Critics call it a cult. It has a reputation for proselytizing very aggressively, handing out flyers on the street and, according to other churches, infiltrating their congregations and poaching their members. And the members of Shincheonji reportedly ignore this virus because they see it as a trick of the devil to obstruct them from spreading their religion. So dozens of the church have been shut down around the country, and about some 1,200 members have reported that they have symptoms of the virus. And so 9,300 church members have been self-quarantined.

SIMON: Are authorities making any progress in understanding how the virus has spread?

KUHN: Well, what they're trying to do is track down everyone who went - got into contact with this church or hospital and isolating them before they can spread the virus further. And that requires a lot of detective work going through surveillance camera tape, going through credit card transaction records. This church reportedly has members in China. They're trying to see if any transmission occurred there. And they're also exploring links between the two big nodes of the virus, the church and the hospital. For example, church members attended the church founder's brother's funeral at the hospital, but no explicit links have been established yet.

SIMON: Anthony, does the South Korean government seem to have a hold on the situation?

KUHN: Well, that's what everyone is concerned about. The South Korean government and the World Health Organization say that despite this explosion in case numbers, the total number is still manageable. Authorities are now shifting their tactics from trying to prevent the virus from entering the country to prevent it from spreading among different communities. The concern, the fear is that the government can't track down all the spreaders. These numbers are just going to continue to explode. Daegu and Seoul have been fairly empty and quiet, but the country is not really going into lockdown the way China has. But the fear is that if they don't get a grip, then more draconian measures will be needed.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Seoul. Thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.