At least 241 people were tested positive for coronavirus in a cult known for its anti-government beliefs in Cheonan city, near Seoul, South Korea, where many of the older congregation refused the vaccine, it is claimed.
A South Korean cult led by an eye-catching priest has been accused of the country’s skyrocketing Covid cases.
Authorities refused to release the name of the church, but said at least 241 people had tested positive in Cheonan city, near Seoul.
The country has reported a new daily record of 4,116 cases as it struggles with an increase in severe cases, straining local hospitals.
Referring to the infections in Cheonan, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said: “We believe the scale of the outbreak is large.”
About 90% of the religious community was unvaccinated, and the majority were in close contact through community life.
Many of the congregation were elderly in their 60s and above and were unvaccinated, the city official said. Only 17 out of the 241 confirmed cases had been vaccinated.
An official from the town of Cheonan said: “I think it is the church’s anti-government belief that kept the believers from getting the vaccine.”
However, the KDCA said it was not possible to determine exactly why such a large number were unvaccinated, as the elderly and people with underlying disorders were not prohibited from inoculating.
The church opened in the early 1990s and has since grown with its own communal living facilities.
The religion is not officially registered as a sect, but the ritual act performed by the priest is known as the so-called “imposition of hands on eyes”, a practice of sticking two eyes to get rid of secular lust, Jung youn-seok, a head of cult information resources, the think tank told Reuters.
“Such an act is extremely dangerous and non-biblical. It is a direct ban on Korean Christianity,” Jung said, adding that the priest’s mother was a powerful figure and was expelled from Christian society in the 1990s for practicing identical rituals.
Calls to the church from Reuters went unanswered.
The outbreak is a small part of the national total, but is an example of a cluster with a high concentration of cases.
Shincheonji was a church at the center of the first major coronavirus epidemic outside China in early 2020, with at least 5,227 people attached to its 310,000 followers who became infected after attending a service in the city of Daegu.
South Korea this month switched to a “live with Covid-19” plan aimed at repealing rigid distance rules and eventually reopening after reaching vaccination targets last month.
Since then, there has been a sharp increase in cases of a fresh daily registration of infections on Tuesday.
Looking at the metropolitan area of Seoul alone, the situation is critical enough to impose an emergency plan at any time,
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a Covid-19 response meeting on Wednesday.
Get all the latest news sent to your inbox. Sign up for the free Mirror newsletter
He urged health authorities to classify patients accordingly based on the severity of the symptoms and make use of self-treatment options for mild or asymptomatic cases.
Less than 20% treated themselves at home last week, Kim said.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) had said that the emergency plan could be imposed if and when the nationwide ICU bed capacity exceeds 75% or depending on the risk assessment assessing lack of medical response, increase in elderly patients and admission to booster shots .
Hospitals treated 586 serious Covid-19 patients from Tuesday midnight, quickly filling up limited hospital beds for serious and critical cases. More than 85% of them were aged 60 years or older, KDCA data showed.
71% of the ICU beds were filled nationwide and 83.7% in the capital Seoul and the surrounding areas alone, Son Young-rae, a senior official in the Ministry of Health, told a briefing and underlined the ministry’s efforts to secure more beds with administrative order.
Hundreds were still waiting for their beds. Despite the increase in the hospitalization rate, the country’s mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.79%.
South Korea was one of the first countries to register new coronavirus cases after it appeared in China in late 2019. It has since had 425,065 infections with 3,363 deaths.
The country has fully vaccinated 79.1% of its 52 million people, while only 4.1% have received a booster dose.