Disinfection staff at work on a platform for the KTX bullet train – the route of which passes through Daegu. Photo: AFP

SEOUL, South Korea – The country’s Covid-19 cases saw their biggest daily increase on Wednesday, leaping over the 1,000 mark – a massive surge from one week earlier when the number of cases nationwide stood at a mere 51.

Meanwhile, authorities are undertaking countrywide tests of more than 200,000 members of the church that is seen as the main vector of the disease in the country. The 12th death was recorded among virus victims and the first cases were reported among the community of US troops based in Korea.

With only weeks to go before National Assembly elections in April, the fallout is starting to hit President Moon Jae-in, where a groundswell of opinion is calling for his impeachment over alleged mishandling of the virus crisis.

Numbers rise, rate slows

Wednesday’s tally of cases from the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention rose by 284, bringing the total to 1,261.

Cases have exploded since last week when it was discovered that a member of the congregation of Christian sect Shincheonji, which is based in the city of Daegu in the country’s southeast, was a “super-spreader.”

In a nation of 51 million, the number of cases remains statistically insignificant. And while confirmed cases of infection continue to rise, the rate of increase has slowed considerably. From Wednesday to Sunday last week, the number of cases each day, doubled but this week, the rate of increase has fallen to between one third and one quarter the numbers seen the day prior.

Wednesday, February 19: Total 51 cases.

Thursday, February 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday, February 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday, February 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday, February 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday, February 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday, February 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday, February 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1,261

Even so, the country is bracing for a potential avalanche of bad news in the days ahead.

The secretive Shincheonji, which has become the target of mass public anger, on Tuesday submitted a list of 212,000 worshippers to the government, and nationwide testing of those people kicked off on Wednesday.

The results of those tests could massively boost the number of confirmed cases. Some 1,600 extra beds are being secured in hospitals in Daegu, the country’s health minister said.

It is unknown what the church’s affiliations are in China – a country that has significant restrictions on religions – but Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that some 200 secret members of the church were active in Wuhan in November and December. Wuhan is the epicenter of the epidemic.

Church authorities have not responded to Asia Times’ emails or telephone calls over the last two days.

Among the victims of the last two days are two people related to US Forces Korea, or USFK, the 28,500-strong American force based in the country.

Asia Times was informed by USFK public affairs on Tuesday of the case of a US widower who is a resident of Daegu but “who frequented the nearby USFK Camp Walker about once a week for groceries, shopping and gas.”

And on Wednesday, USFK put out a press release detailing the case of a 23-year-old male service member who is now in self-quarantine at an off-base residence near Camp Carroll. Korean and USFK health professionals “are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” the release said.

Camps Carroll and Walker are both near Daegu. Approximately 80% of Korea’s virus cases are centered in and around the city.

Political infection

With National Assembly elections set for April 15, the government’s handling of the virus is shaping up as a political issue.

President Moon, who has been criticized by the right-wing for not enforcing a travel ban on Chinese visitors, came under fire with a petition calling for his impeachment that had gained more than 400,000 signatures on Wednesday.

Previous President Park Geun-hye, was impeached in 2017 and is serving a compound prison terms of 33 years on corruption and abuse of power charges. Her unpopularity with the electorate stemmed originally from her government’s mishandling of the sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which 304 passengers, mainly schoolchildren, died.

In an irony, the petition was posted on the website of the Blue House. A Blue House official told Asia Times that the Blue House response will be posted in early April.

While the petition looks highly unlikely to lead to any actual impeachment proceedings, the political temperature is rising as the country prepares for National Assembly elections on April 15. The handling – or mishandling – of the virus crisis is almost certainly going to be an electoral issue.

Meanwhile, in street politics, a battle is shaping up between thousands of predominantly elderly, Christian conservatives and Seoul City. The city, headed by a left-leaning mayor, has banned mass gatherings amid the coronavirus crisis. However, last weekend, that ban was defied by some 2,000 anti-government protesters.

In a press release sent to foreign reporters, Seoul City said that under an article of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, it would take legal action against “a group calling for President Moon’s resignation for violating the ban on public gatherings.” 

Some protesters have reportedly said they do not believe that the virus can be passed on in open-air gatherings, and have vowed to continue their rallies this weekend, raising the possibility of police clashes at the gates of the Blue House.

Near normality  

Despite the ongoing brouhaha, daily life continues largely as usual in the South Korean capital.  

In a northwest Seoul neighborhood on Wednesday, there was plenty of road and foot traffic. On a day when the government announced a ban on the export of masks, one local pharmacy had run out, but a nearby drug store was still selling them in multiple packs. It was rare to see pedestrians unmasked and all shop assistants were masked.

And despite the virus, one critical Korean midday tradition continues apace.

Since the opening of the first Starbucks in the country in 1999, Koreans have been among the world’s most fanatical coffee drinkers. A worker in a neighborhood branch of the US chain laughed when he was asked about the virus’ impact on business on Wednesday.

“Lots and lots of customers!” he told Asia Times, and indeed, downstairs seating was fully occupied.