World

SKorea scrambles as virus cases surge

By AAP Newswire

Malls and restaurants in Daegu were empty and streets were eerily quiet on Friday after the number of cases of coronavirus in South Korea doubled overnight to 204, almost all of them found in and around the country's fourth largest city.

Many of the infections were traced to a 61-year-old woman, identified as "Patient 31" who had attended services at a church in the city, which along with a funeral attended by several members of the same church created what health authorities have called a "super-spreading event".

Scrambling to respond to one of the largest clusters of infection outside China, the government designated Daegu and neighbouring Cheongdo County "special care zones", with plans to send in military medical staff and other health workers, along with extra resources, including hospital beds.

To take some of the pressure off hospitals, there were also plans to set up isolation facilities.

In Seoul, officials said there would be a ban on holding large protests and demonstrations that often take place at the weekend in the capital, Yonhap news agency reported.

Several members of the military tested positive for the virus after coming in contact with residents in the Daegu area, prompting Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to ban all personnel from taking leave, confining troops to barracks.

Many of the initial patients in South Korea reported to have contracted the flu-like and potentially fatal virus have since recovered, but the sudden and rapid spread in recent days has raised alarm.

The potential shock to the economy from any epidemic rattled investors, as the won currency had its worst week in more than four years.

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin called it an "unprecedented crisis" for the city of 2.5 million people, advising residents to stay home and warning that any kind of mass gathering would be banned.

People still ventured out, most of them wearing masks in many parts of the city.

But the streets were largely deserted around the suspected location of the outbreak, a branch of the Shincheonji Church.

As of Friday more than 500 members of the Church were showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, authorities said.

"This disease case is seen as the devil's deed to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji," the founder of the church, Lee Man-hee said in a message to members, urging them to overcome the virus.

In a statement, the church said it has conducted prevention measures at 74 of its branches and churches across the country, and that all its facilities had been closed since Tuesday.

But Seoul's Mayor Park Won-soon told a news briefing that the Shincheonji churches would be locked down in the capital.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for officials to closely investigate the church services, as well as a funeral service held in nearby Cheongdo County for the brother of the founder of the church.