SEOUL (REUTERS/AFP) - South Korea's president declared war on the coronavirus on Tuesday (March 3), ordering additional hospital beds and more face masks to be made available as the number of cases rose by 600 in the worst epidemic of any nation outside China.
President Moon Jae-in apologised for shortages of face masks and promised support for virus-hit small businesses in Asia's fourth-biggest economy, which has now reported 4,812 cases of the flu-like disease and 34 deaths.
"The entire country has entered war against the infectious disease as the crisis in Daegu and Gyeongbuk province has reached the highest point," he told a Cabinet meeting, referring to the two hardest-hit parts of the country. "I am very sorry to the people that we are not able to supply masks swiftly and sufficiently, and have caused inconvenience."
Of the 4,812 cases nationwide, nearly 90 per cent were in Daegu and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang, said the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus which originated in China late last year began to spread rapidly in South Korea after it entered the congregation of a fringe Christian group in Daegu city, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
More than half of the cases have been linked to the church, a secretive religious group often described as a cult. Authorities said more than 190,000 members had been checked as of Tuesday.
Church leader and self-proclaimed messiah Lee Man-hee, 88, tested negative for the virus on Monday, having been threatened with arrest unless he agreed to be examined.
He had apologised for the sect's role in spreading the virus, twice bowing his head to the ground at a televised press conference on Monday - insisting his organisation was cooperating with the government's containment efforts.
Seoul city authorities have filed a complaint, with prosecutors seeking to have him and other Shincheonji leaders charged with murder and other offences.
BATTLE FOR MASKS
President Moon ordered masks to be stockpiled as a strategic item so suppliers can produce them without the risk of surpluses.
People are forming long queues for masks at retail stores and online suppliers are selling out as soon as stock arrives, even though the World Health Organisation says healthy people only need to wear masks if they are caring for someone who is sick.
Lee Ji-eun, a 34-year-old doctor in Seoul, said her daily routine began with surfing the internet to try to find masks for her family.
"It is totally a lottery. I click 'buy' like crazy every morning, but I only succeeded in purchasing a few last week," she said. "There aren't enough even for doctors when treating patients."
A man was caught lining up to buy a mask in Daegu after testing positive for the virus, a police official told Reuters.
The central bank has warned of negative growth in the first quarter for the world's 12th-largest economy, noting the epidemic will hit both consumption and exports.
Mr Moon said the government will inject more than 30 trillion won (S$35 billion) into the economy to address the "grave" situation brought on by the outbreak.
"The entire country has entered a war with the infectious disease," Mr Moon said, ordering all government agencies to operate around the clock.
Scores of events - from K-pop concerts to sports seasons - have been cancelled or postponed over the contagion, with school and kindergarten breaks extended by three weeks nationwide.