“I am worried,” said Choi Min, a 34-year-old office worker. “I was feeling a bit of a fever, a bit feverish, and I was in my office, so I took an ambulance here.”
“I am worried,” is an understatement, because “here” is Daegu Medical Center – a public hospital serving Korea’s fourth-largest city, which has emerged with shock speed as the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 epidemic.
The hospital is transitioning to a fully dedicated anti-Covid 19 hospital.
“I was worried about infecting others,” Choi said, as she recalled the symptoms that had bought her to the Center hours earlier. “My colleagues were worried.”
Amid the shock outbreak that has gripped this southeastern city of 2.4 million over the last two days, the hospital grounds were eerily quiet.
People like Choi who found themselves suffering suspicious symptoms – colds, flu, fever – waited nervously at an outside holding area for tests.
Ambulances pulled up at the front, manned by paramedics wearing full biohazard suits. The reception center has a half-opened window in the side of the hospital. Doors were locked. Behind the window, a nurse wearing a plastic face visor was taking down details.
“We have been getting more and more [arrivals] over the last two days,” she said.
How did she feel?
“You can say we are really scared,” she said. “But we are doing our jobs.”
Those who report to Daegu Medical Center first receive temperature tests. If medical professionals judge that they need a second test, they have their lungs checked. For the unlucky ones, the third step is a mucous test.
After lunch on Friday, the waiting area was crowded. “We did not expect so many people,” a staffer muttered. “We have run out of chairs.”
As they waited for suited-up paramedics to give preliminary temperature tests, most people sat quietly in the warm winter sunlight. A Vietnamese woman talked urgently on her smartphone; a teenage child lay in the lap of a distressed-looking parent. But most people were alone. Few were talking.
Inside the hospital, roughly 200 patients with regular conditions and illnesses are waiting to be transferred out, and roughly 200 more have already been sent to other hospitals as Daegu Medical Center converts to its new emergency role as a testing, quarantine and treatment center for Covid-19, Park Ji-min, a public affairs staffer at the center told Asia Times.
Park was unable to offer numbers of tests administered in the holding area – they were ongoing – saying only that 90 people had been tested on Thursday.
Ten confirmed coronavirus cases were isolated in a “low pressure” ward that was custom-designed with specialized ventilation systems. The ward capacity could be increased, and machinery was en route to convert another ward to the appropriate atmospheric conditions, Park said. Other parts of the hospital were being turned into a quarantine area.
In reception, staff and nurses were eating makeshift lunches; a small coffee stand of the kind that is ubiquitous in Korea remained open.
“Some nurses have quit in a panic,” Park said – but she has seen it all before. “We have dealt with SARS and MERS,” she told Asia Times. “This is not something new to us… we are more placid.”
Despite her professionalism, she admitted to some personal fears. “I do worry a bit, but it is part of my mission,” she said. “Normal citizens are really scared to come near Daegu Medical Center, but the workers here are not making any fuss.”
Elsewhere, there is very considerable fuss.
Cases over the last two days have been doubling on a daily basis. As of 5pm Friday, there were 204 cases nationwide, according to the Korea Center of Disease Control and Prevention. That meant 100 new cases had been identified on Friday alone.
Most of the new cases recorded on Thursday and Friday were in Daegu – 150 of the 204 identified nationwide.
South Korea has screened 16,400 people for Covid-19 since January 3, with 13,016 testing negative, and 17 patients having been discharged after making a full recovery, according to data from Yonhap news agency. But so far, only one man has died nationwide.
Daegu has closed kindergartens and is monitoring elderly welfare centers. School winter vacations are reportedly being extended.
The city is home to a location that – along with the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama, Japan – is now the biggest known vector of the coronavirus outside mainland China: Shincheonji Church.
The headquarters of the church does not look like a place of religion. In fact, it is a totally nondescript, 10-story commercial building. But of the 80 new cases identified in Daegu today, 75 were members of this church, which many describe as a cult.
On Friday morning, the entire building was locked. Signs on the door forbade entry. Locals at the scene told Asia Times the entire building’s exterior and the pavement outside had been disinfected – but not the interior. Next door to the church entrance, a coffee shop and a convenience store were both closed and locked.
At a grocery store across a four-lane road, the middle-aged female owner-operator was willing to speak but requested anonymity and asked that her store name not be used.
“All citizens are scared, and business is so bad,” she said. “Although I feel anxious, I have to run this store to live.” Consumer behavior had changed over the last two days. “When customers arrive, they are all wearing masks,” she said. “They buy their things quickly and they don’t say a word.”
She worries about whether her masked customers are church members. “After the news broke, I was so scared – there are so many believers,” she said.
A businessman in the street outside compared the outbreak to a previous tragedy – the Daegu subway fire, an arson attack that occurred in 2003 and killed 192 people.
“I am way more concerned now,” he said. “The subway incident was just one case, but this is an epidemic – with the virus, there could be people with it walking the streets and spreading it.”
His biggest fears were for his children. “Public awareness about sanitation has been raised, but I have kids and I am worried about them,” he said. “I hope this epidemic grows no bigger.”
Public anger is being aimed at the church, and an unidentified 61-year-old worshiper who has been named as a “super-spreader.” The woman, it has emerged, allegedly refused health check-ups and subsequently spread the virus during mass church services.
As of yesterday, the church halted all services and is instead conducting sessions online. But in Daegu, rumors are swirling that some members are holding underground worship meetings, local reporters outside the church told Asia Times.
“I don’t know much about that religion, but that woman should have taken precautions, but she refused,” a taxi driver said. “If it were not for her, Daegu would still be a calm city.”
Fear is more diluted in other parts of Daegu, an industrial city known for its textiles sector, as well as for being a stronghold of political conservatism and as the hometown of Oscar-winning writer/director Bong Joon-ho. Still, one does not have to dig too deep to find it.
“Business has not just decreased – there are no customers at all!” the taxi driver said. At 12:45pm, he picked up a group of foreign reporters, including Asia Times, in what he said was his first fare of the day. “I can barely earn [enough for] my gas.”
There was little traffic on city roads. In the city’s main pedestrianized shopping district, there were few shoppers. And even beggars were wearing masks.
“We would usually have double this number of people on the streets,” said Chun You-ju, a shop assistant in the district. “This all started from yesterday.”
At City Hall, police were manning the doors and local reporters were filming in the lobby. Inside, a large screen ran public health information messages. PR staff were too busy to meet foreign reporters, but an official spoke briefly on an internal telephone.
“The number of patients is spiking and City Hall is following the guidelines set by the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” the official said. “But as the mayor said this morning, this crisis should be dealt with, not as a Daegu or provincial problem, but as a national problem.”
Nobody arriving in the city can overlook signs that something very bad has happened.
On the KTX bullet train, which whisks passengers from Seoul to Daegu in a smooth, 100-minute ride, health warnings about the virus – wash your hands, wear a mask, report to health authorities if you have symptoms – aired over the PA system.
Virtually everyone at the station was masked. More public information messages about hand washing and mask-wearing flashed between train arrival and departure times on electronic boards.
Outside the station, the Daegu Tourist information center was still manned by four staff, but was otherwise empty. “The number of Korean visitors has dropped a lot, but the number of foreign visitors remains the same,” said Kang Su-jin, a staffer at the center.
With Daegu hardly a global tourism destination, that may not mean a great deal. But Kang was also feeling nervy. “It is very rare to see anyone without a mask,” she said. “I feel a bit anxious as most of what we do is meetings, person-to-person.”
Subway staff told Asia Times that passenger numbers on the 18th were around 400,000. On the 19th they were 300,000, and on the 20th, 220,000. Numbers for today are not yet collated, but CCTV footage of the station showed deserted platforms and escalators.
Aboard a train heading downtown, there were few passengers. All were masked. One spoke to Asia Times.
“I was dumbfounded,” to hear the news of the sudden spike in cases in the city on Thursday, said Kim Ju-an, a high-school student. She said she was “trying not to leave home and to reduce the number of occasions where I meet people.”
So why the subway trip?
Kim, her mother and younger brother were on the way to an acupuncture clinic to get treatment that they believe strengthens their immune system.
“We used to go once a week,” she said. “Now, we go every day.”