Missionary school emerging as hotbed for virus in S. Korea

It is under fire for obstructing health officials trying to contact recent visitors for testing

A missionary school that is emerging as a new hotbed for Covid-19 infections in South Korea is now under fire for obstructing health officials who are struggling to contact all recent visitors to go for testing.

More than 700 cases had been traced to the BTJ Centre for All Nations in Sangju city, 270km south-east of Seoul, as at yesterday.

It is feared that the number could spike, triggering fears of a mass outbreak, complicating the government's anti-virus efforts that have finally brought daily infection figures down to 500 or so from a record high of 1,241 last month.

South Korea reported 513 cases of Covid-19 yesterday, raising its total to 71,241. The death toll stood at 1,217.

Of the 3,000 people confirmed to have visited BTJ from Nov 27 to Dec 27, 1,138, or 37.9 per cent, have not gone for testing yet.

Health officials said many of them remain uncontactable, while some refused to get tested.

Founded in 2014, BTJ - short for Back to Jerusalem - is described as a "radical" Protestant school that offers lessons on evangelism and healing, among other topics.

Two BTJ officials are being investigated for failing to cooperate with government orders to quickly provide a list of 500 or so people who attended a major event held on Nov 27 and 28 that allowed infections to spread beyond the school.

Health officials had warned earlier this week that BTJ's "uncooperative attitude could cause a significant amount of damage to society".

Sixteen new cases were traced to BTJ yesterday, raising the total to 729. The first case was detected on Dec 3.

About 30 per cent of the patients had visited BTJ personally. They then spread the virus to some 500 people living in nine other regions, including Seoul.

Port city Pohang, about 140km south-east of Sangju, reported 49 cases related to BTJ so far. Central city Cheongju confirmed 43 such cases to date and is seeking to punish two residents who defied administrative orders to get tested by Thursday. They can be fined up to 2 million won (S$2,400) as a result.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has warned of strong measures against those obstructing government anti-virus measures, noting that the spread of infections traced back to BTJ is "alarming".

"The government will not tolerate or condone irrational behaviour, such as interfering with epidemiological investigations or refusing to go for testing, that blatantly threatens people's lives and public safety," he said during an inter-agency meeting on Thursday.

BTJ apparently held numerous gatherings late last year that drew more participants than were allowed under tightened social distancing rules. Under Level 2, for instance, religious events were allowed to fill only 20 per cent of seats.

Officials said 13 per cent of those who went for testing turned out positive - about 10 times higher than the national average.

This is worrying as the rate is similar to two previous major outbreaks linked to churches - the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu city last February and Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul last August.

Shincheonji has accounted for 5,214 cases while Sarang had 1,173.

Shincheonji was accused of hindering contact tracing efforts by omitting names of members and not declaring all its facilities, although its leaders insisted they were cooperative.

The authorities have warned that stiff penalties will be imposed on people who flout anti-virus rules.

Police data showed that more than 400 offenders have been caught since early last month, nearly half of them being owners of nightlife establishments who failed to shut down as required.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2021, with the headline 'Missionary school emerging as hotbed for virus in S. Korea'. Subscribe