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Rumors and conspiracy theories hamper fight against COVID-19

Members of the Sarang Jeil Church block quarantine officials near the church in Seoul on Tuesday. Yonhap
Members of the Sarang Jeil Church block quarantine officials near the church in Seoul on Tuesday. Yonhap

Rumors that the government is manipulating COVID-19 test results and that the virus is being used for political purposes are spreading among conservative groups, hampering the fight against the pandemic.

“They are manipulating the numbers (of confirmed COVID-19 patients) to their benefit,” a 60-year old housewife said, declining to be named.

“I heard that 2,000 people tested positive in Seoul the other day, but they are announcing smaller numbers because it (large numbers) would cut Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party’s ratings.”

Going on to say that the virus is “designed to remove 90 percent of the people,” she said the virus cannot be stopped, adding that the pandemic is being orchestrated by governments.

These are just a few of the many rumors that have been circulating in recent weeks, many originating from the Sarang Jeil Church, conservative YouTubers and other groups with extreme views.

The Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, led by Jun Kwang-hoon, appears to have told people that the authorities would manipulate test results to ensure that members of its congregation tested positive.

Jun, who is now undergoing treatment for COVID-19, has made wilder claims, accusing the authorities of “spraying the virus” at the church and saying North Korea was behind the outbreak at his church.

So far over 3,200 members of the church have been tested, and about 19 percent of the tests have come up positive for the novel coronavirus. Despite the efforts to trace and test members of the church, some 700 members are refusing to be tested, or evading the authorities, some going to extreme lengths.

A mother and daughter who attend the church ignored orders to be tested and traveled from Seoul to North Jeolla Province, where they tested positive. A member of the church escaped from a hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19. He used public transport and went to public places for 25 hours before he was apprehended.

A couple in their 50s who attend the church refused to be tested by public health officials Monday, touching officials and spitting in their car when confronted. The couple said they could not trust the government and attempted to drive to a private sector institution against quarantine regulations.

False information is also being spread among those who attended an Aug. 15 rally condemning the government. The rally, in which the Sarang Jeil Church played a central role, drew a large crowd from across the country. So far 53 of those who attended have tested positive, and 33 of those with positive test results have been linked to the Sarang Jeil Church.

Such claims are being propagated by a number of conservative YouTube channels, most notably a channel whose name translates to “God’s move,” operated by Shin Hye-shik, who attended the Aug. 15 rally and has tested positive for the virus.

In a broadcast before he was tested, Shin -- whose channel has more than a million subscribers -- connected to a Sarang Jeil Church missionary who claimed that “a large number of people” told him they had tested positive for the virus at state-run facilities, but that tests carried out at private hospitals had come back negative.

With unverified information hampering quarantine efforts, the authorities have spoken out against misinformation.

“Tests are mostly carried out by designated private sector medical institutions. The quarantine authorities have no way to manipulate the results, and no reason to do so,” Kim Gang-lip said at Thursday’s briefing, calling for the public’s cooperation.

“The reason people who came into contact with (members of) the concerned church are being tested is to protect the public. I urge the media to stringently verify such fake news before reporting it.”

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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