President Moon Jae-in on Monday called for cooperation in the government’s anti-coronavirus efforts to avoid going into a de-facto lockdown as South Korea faces a second wave of COVID-19 infections. The country reported 266 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours ending midnight Sunday.
“We are facing the greatest crisis since COVID-19 outbreak began,” Moon said at a weekly meeting with his chief secretaries Monday. “We are in much more serious emergency situation than during the early outbreak linked to Shincheonji (Church of Jesus).”
It would be inevitable to raise the level of social distancing campaign to the highest level unless the virus is contained at this stage, which Moon said would amount to everyday lives coming to a halt, jobs lost and economy seriously damaged.
Moon also warned against impeding health authorities’ epidemiological efforts and spreading misinformation, saying “any freedom of religion, public assembly and expression” cannot be justified when they incur colossal damage to fellow citizens.
At the center of resurgence of the virus in Korea is the Sarang Jeil Church, led by a far-right pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, and a massive anti-government rally held Aug. 15 in central Seoul. Some of those linked to the church and the rally are refusing the government’s calls for COVID-19 testing in belief that they are being targeted for political reasons.
Korea announced 266 new COVID-19 cases Monday, falling below 300 for the first time in four days. Of the new cases, 258 were locally transmitted and eight originated overseas, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Monday’s tally marks a drop from the 397 new cases announced the previous day, though the authorities warned against attaching any significant meaning to the fall in infections given less COVID-19 testing conducted over the weekend.
“The pattern of the recent outbreak is different from outbreaks from single sources such as clubs in Itaewon or Coupang (logistics center) and unidentified new sources of infections continue to emerge simultaneously,” KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong said at a briefing Monday, adding that adhering to social distancing rules this week and next week will shape the outlook of the coronavirus situation in Korea.
In the three-tier system, the Level Two social distancing rules are in place nationwide starting Sunday, under which 12 types of high-risk businesses should be shut down, gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors are banned, among other measures.
Starting Monday, mask-wearing in public was also made mandatory in Seoul, Sejong and Jeju Island, with the rule in place in 13 out of 17 cities and provinces across the county. As the grace period ends and the revision of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act comes into force on Oct. 13, those breaking the rule will face a fine of up to 100,000 won.
According to a Realmeter survey on 500 people conducted on Aug. 21, 55.9 percent of the respondents approved of raising the social distancing level to the highest level to stem the spread of the coronavirus at an early stage.
The number of cases traced to the Seoul-based church was 875, up 34 from a day earlier, according to the KCDC. Some 115 cases of second transmission linked to the church were confirmed from 21 establishments including call centers, offices, hospitals and schools.
Among 2,162 church members who were tested for the coronavirus, 21.7 percent of them tested positive, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
In connection with the rally held on Aug. 15 in central Seoul, a total of 176 cases were reported, up 40 from the previous day. Seven of the cases were among 9,500 police officers who had been dispatched to the rally.
The authorities urged anyone who has attended all rallies held on Aug. 15 in central Seoul -- not only the anti-government rally at Gwanghwamun Square -- to be tested for the coronavirus at local health clinics regardless of having symptoms.
One case was reported from another event held near Bosingak Bell in central Seoul on Aug. 15, attended by some 1,000 members of the progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Of the new locally transmitted cases, the overwhelming majority were registered in the Greater Seoul area -- 97 in Seoul and 84 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital. Incheon reported 20 new cases.
Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, cases were reported in all major cities and provinces except in Daegu and Jeju Island -- 10 cases each in Daejeon and North Chungcheong Province, seven each in South Jeolla Province and in South Chungcheong Province, six each in Gangwon Province and North Gyeongsang Province. Three cases were registered in Busan and one each in Gwangju, Ulsan, Sejong and South Gyeongsang Province.
Korea saw its daily new cases exceed 300 for the previous three days, with the number of daily infections in the triple digits since Aug. 14 when 103 new cases were reported.
The average number of locally transmitted cases per day soared from 12 from July 26-Aug. 8 to 162.1 from Aug. 9-22, while the average number of imported cases per day decreased from 21.6 to 12.1 during the same period.
Transmission routes for 18.5 percent of the new cases reported from Aug. 9-22 were unidentified, compared to 8.3 percent during the period of July 26-Aug. 8.
A total of 1,845 schools nationwide got closed as of Monday amid the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Ministry of Education.
Of the eight imported cases, four were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other four detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Five of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals. Five came from Asia, two from Europe and one from the United States.
So far, 14,219 of the 17,665 people found to have caught the new coronavirus, have been released from isolation upon making full recoveries, up 19 from a day earlier. Some 3,137 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. Thirty-two people are in serious or critical condition.
The death toll remains unchanged at 309. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.75 percent -- 2.05 percent for men and 1.5 percent for women -- as of Monday. The fatality rate is 22.37 percent for those in their 80s or over and 7.57 percent for those in their 70s.
The country has carried out 1,804,422 tests since Jan. 3, with 47,995 people awaiting results as of Monday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com