SEOUL (REUTERS, AFP, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea reported the death of a second coronavirus patient and a spike in its total number of cases to 204 on Friday (Feb 21), as it designated the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo as "special care zones" and confined troops to their bases in a desperate bid to contain the spread of the virus.
The patient had been transported from Daegu, the country's fourth largest city, for treatment in Busan, the second largest, the Yonhap news agency said on Friday evening.
Earlier in the afternoon, authorities reported 48 new coronavirus cases, adding to the 52 it announced in the morning. With a total of 204 infections, South Korea is the worst-infected country outside China.
Among the latest cases, 46 were connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu, the Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.
At least 80 members of Shincheonji have now been infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on Feb 10 but attended at least four church services before being diagnosed, a scenario that health authorities described as a "super-spreading event".
Of the national tally, more than 110 patients are from Daegu or nearby.
Malls, restaurants and streets in the city, the country’s fourth-largest with a population of 2.5 million, were largely empty as the mayor called the outbreak an "unprecedented crisis".
As of Friday more than 400 members of the church are showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing.
He said the city would ban any kind of mass gathering, and repeated a request for residents to stay at home.
Outside the Shincheonji church in the city, Seo Dong-min, 24, told AFP: "With so many confirmed cases here, I’m worried that Daegu will become the second Wuhan," referring to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.
Shincheonji is often accused of being a cult and claims its founder, Lee Man-hee, has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many important unknowns surrounding it. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
Many of South Korea’s initial patients have recovered, though it reported the first death from the virus on Thursday.
The government will designate Daegu and neighbouring Cheongdo county as "special care zones", Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a meeting of senior government officials in Seoul on Friday.
"It is urgent to find those who were in contact with the infected and treat the diagnosed people as soon as possible," Mr Chung said. "We will proactively provide necessary assistance including sickbeds, personnel and equipment."
The government also plans to send military medical staff, and provide temporary isolation facilities, he said.
In the South Korean capital of Seoul, city officials said they would not allow any of the large protests and demonstrations that are often held on the weekends, Yonhap news agency reported.
After several military members tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to ban all soldiers from taking leave, leaving their barracks, and receiving guests.
Some exceptions would be made for family emergencies or for soldiers at the end of their military service, the ministry said.
SEOUL BANS RALLIES, SHUTS CHURCH FACILITIES
Seoul’s city government said on Friday that it will ban rallies in the centre of the city and close down the facilities of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Seoul as part of efforts to rein in the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
“We plan to ban use of Seoul Plaza, Cheonggye Plaza and Gwanghwamun Plaza,” Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said in a press briefing, adding that the municipality will notify rally organisers of the decision and consult with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
The unusual move is to protect the elderly who are especially vulnerable to contagious diseases, he said, referring to massive weekend rallies in central Seoul by anti-government, conservative groups mostly comprised of those in their 60s and older.
A large-scale rally led by an association of conservative groups is scheduled for 11am on Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square. They reportedly plan to hold the rally in the lead-up to the April general elections.
Under a local health law, rallies in urban areas can be banned for public health reasons. Those who breach the measure can be fined up to 3 million won (S$3,490).
Park said the municipality will disinfect the Shincheonji facilities and allow its worship services to resume once safety can be guaranteed.
It will also temporarily close down 3,467 social welfare centres across Seoul.