Coronavirus: South Korea sees 18th death as cases top 3,700, churches close

Medical members take samples from a driver with suspected symptoms of the coronavirus, at a "drive-through" virus test facility in Goyang, north of Seoul, on Feb 29, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS/AFP) - South Korea recorded one more coronavirus-related fatality on Sunday (March 1), bringing the nation's death toll to 18. It reported 210 new confirmed cases of infection in the afternoon, raising its total count to 3,726 - the largest in the world outside China. Earlier in the morning, it had announced 376 new cases from a day earlier.

The latest death was an 83-year-old man in the southeastern city of Daegu, the centre of the country's outbreak, local news agency Yonhap reported, citing the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

He also had underlying diseases, including suffering from a stroke and hypertension, the KCDC said in a statement.

Nearly 90 per cent of Sunday's new cases were from Daegu and its neighbouring North Gyeongsang province, according to KCDC.

The national total is expected to rise further as the authorities screen more than 260,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive entity often accused of being a cult that is linked to around half of the country's cases.

Churches closed

Health authorities have urged South Koreans to refrain from attending religious services and political events and stay indoors this weekend, warning of a "critical moment" in the country's battle against the virus.

Churches were closed on Sunday with many holding online services instead.

In Seoul, the capital, about a dozen worshippers were turned away from the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which put a sermon for its 560,000 followers on YouTube, filmed with a small choir instead of all 200 members and 60-strong orchestra.

"I had heard there would be no service, but just came to check as I live nearby, but yes, it is so empty," said one of them, Mr Song Young-koo, as he left South Korea's biggest church.

"It's a wise decision to do it online, since the virus would easily spread at mass gatherings and churches can be no exception."

For the first time in its 236-year history, South Korea's Catholic church decided to halt masses at more than 1,700 locations nationwide. Buddhist temples have also called off events, while major Christian churches held online services.

At Yongsan in central Seoul, a notice outside the large Samil Presbyterian Church advised parishioners that all gatherings had been cancelled, with the parking area closed off.

The streets of Daegu - South Korea's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million - have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.

The authorities have urged the public to exercise caution. and anyone with a fever or respiratory symptoms to stay home.

But officials say they are not considering a citywide quarantine for the city in the manner of the lockdown imposed on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.

The government has imposed a one-week extension on school breaks nationwide. In Daegu, the school break has been extended by three weeks.

Help for North Korea

President Moon Jae-in called for unity and vowed greater efforts, including an extra budget, to fight the outbreak, in a speech for the 101st anniversary of a movement to win independence from Japanese colonial rule.

"The outbreak can threaten our lives temporarily, but it cannot break our unity and hope," Mr Moon said in the speech.

Mr Moon proposed joint efforts with North Korea to prevent an outbreak in the neighbouring country and improve healthcare.

North Korea has not confirmed any cases but imposed a month-long quarantine for those with symptoms, and state media said its leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, held a meeting on stricter measures.

The crisis spooked trade and financial markets, leading Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and LG Display to temporarily shut down a plant each and prompting boy band BTS to cancel a world tour set for April.

More neighbours suspended flights and banned visitors from South Korea.

In a statement, Seoul's foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha asked Washington to avoid "excessive action that could needlessly shrink exchanges between both countries", in a telephone call on Sunday with US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.

The request came after the United States advised Americans not to travel to hard-hit regions, such as Daegu.

The coronavirus, which first started in China's Wuhan, Hubei province, in late December, has infected almost 87,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,900.

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