'Crazy auntie' and secretive church at heart of spike of coronavirus cases in South Korea

Residents sanitising the interior of a church in Seoul yesterday. Daegu city's 2.5 million residents have been urged to stay indoors and avoid gatherings and religious activities as the authorities scramble to curb the virus' spread.
Medical workers transferring a suspected coronavirus patient from Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo to another hospital on Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

231 cases linked to church that woman 'super spreader' is from; may rise to hundreds more

A "crazy auntie" super spreader and a secretive church are now at the centre of the spread of the coronavirus in South Korea, with the tally of cases doubling to 433.

So far, 231 patients have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the south-eastern city of Daegu, but health officials warned that number could rise further as more than 1,200 church followers are displaying flu-like symptoms.

The authorities are scrambling to strengthen measures to prevent the virus from spreading even further, as Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin urged the city's 2.5 million residents to stay indoors and avoid gatherings and religious activities.

"Korea is not fighting the coronavirus, but the Daegu Shincheonji virus," a netizen named Leslie commented on Web portal Daum that drew over 40,000 likes.

Doctors are still trying to figure out how Daegu's first patient, a 61-year-old woman, could have been infected despite having no recent travel history and no contact with previous cases.

Known as Patient No. 31, the church member tested positive for the virus on Feb 18, after which infection figures in Daegu skyrocketed and the authorities started labelling her as a "super spreader".

Angry netizens, however, are calling her "crazy ajumma" (auntie in Korean) for the way she refused twice to test for the coronavirus despite developing symptoms such as a sore throat and fever, then attending church twice despite her condition worsening, and how she roamed freely even though she was warded for 10 days in a hospital after a car accident.

The woman also left the hospital to have lunch with friends at a buffet restaurant and spent time at a jimjilbang (Korea spa with large resting areas) in the neighbouring city of Cheongdo, where infections linked to a hospital are multiplying.

She even argued with a health official for an hour before finally agreeing to take the coronavirus test, according to local reports.

People familiar with the Shincheonji church, however, know that illness is no excuse for followers to neglect their duties.

Founded in 1984 by religious leader Lee Man-hee, the church has 12 branches in South Korea and claims to have some 200,000 followers.

 
 
 

It has expanded overseas and set up a branch last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan - the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected nearly 78,000 people worldwide, the vast majority of them in China.

The church claimed on its website that it recruited 103,764 members in just 10 months.

Shincheonji, which means "new heaven and earth" in Korean, has been described as an apocalyptic Christian group and branded a cult.

Observers say the church's unorthodox practices could have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus.

A former member, who left the church in December 2018, told JoongAng Sunday newspaper that he was required to kneel on floor cushions placed 10cm apart and hold hands with the people around him during regular church services, which lasted two hours.

Church members would always bring lunch boxes to the service and share with others who did not bring any food, he added.

 

He also recalled spending a lot of time in church on weekdays, joining small groups to study the Bible in crowded, confined spaces.

Another former member, who left the church in 2015, told the New York Times that they were trained to sing hymns loudly and not wear anything on their faces, such as glasses or masks. They were also trained not to fear illnesses, he added.

"We were taught not to care about such worldly things like jobs, ambition or passion. Everything was focused on proselytising, even when we were sick."

Medical workers transferring a suspected coronavirus patient from Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo to another hospital on Friday.
Residents sanitising the interior of a church in Seoul yesterday. Daegu city's 2.5 million residents have been urged to stay indoors and avoid gatherings and religious activities as the authorities scramble to curb the virus' spread. PHOTO: REUTERS

Church founder Lee has called the coronavirus "an act of the devil who saw the rapid growth of Shincheonji and wants to destroy our advancement".

In a message sent to church members via an app, he also said members should avoid meeting for the time being but continue to communicate in matters of education.

The church has suspended worship services and gatherings nationwide.

The branch in Daegu has been shut down and the city authorities have been given a list of 9,300 people who regularly attend services.

 
 
 

In a statement, Shincheonji said it was "deeply sorry that because of one of our members, who thought of her condition as a cold because she had not travelled abroad, (it) led to many in our church being infected and thereby caused concern to the local community".

Student Kim Je-yeon, 19, told The Sunday Times that fewer people were on the streets of Daegu now, and that tuition centres and study rooms which he frequented had closed temporarily.

He added that he has cancelled plans to meet friends this weekend because "the crisis is worsening and our parents are worried about our safety".

Of the 229 new cases reported yesterday, 95 were related to the Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, 27km south-east of Daegu.

This brings the total number of cases there to 114, including nine hospital staff.

It is not clear how the virus started to spread in the hospital, but many Shincheonji followers are known to have attended the funeral of the church founder's elder brother at the hospital from Jan 31 to Feb 2.

The health authorities also found that nine of the new patients were in a Catholic pilgrimage group of 77 who visited Israel between Feb 8 and 16.


  • Additional reporting by Kim Yeo-joo

Correction note: An earlier version of this article said the Shincheonji church claimed on its website that the Wuhan branch recruited 103,764 members in just 10 months, when it should be the church in general. We are sorry for the error.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 23, 2020, with the headline ''Crazy auntie' and secretive church at heart of spike in S. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe