A little known sect led by a pastor who pokes eyes to heal is at the centre of a Covid outbreak in South Korea, as the country reported a new daily record of 4,116 cases and battles a rise in serious cases straining hospitals.
In a tiny, rural church in a town of 427 residents in Cheonan city, south of Seoul, at least 241 people linked to the religious community tested positive for coronavirus, a city official told Reuters on Wednesday.
“We believe the scale of the outbreak is large …” the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
About 90% of the religious community are unvaccinated and the majority are in close contact through communal living.
Many of the congregation are in their 60s and above and are unvaccinated, the city official said. Just 17 out of the 241 confirmed cases had been vaccinated.
“I believe it’s the church’s anti-government beliefs that refrained the believers to get the vaccine,” the official said, adding that the town was put under a lockdown.
However, the KDCA said it was not possible to determine precisely why such a large number were unvaccinated, as the elderly and people with underlying conditions had not been banned from inoculation.
The church opened in the early 1990s and has become larger with communal living facilities of its own.
The religion is not officially registered as a sect, however the ritual act the pastor performs is known as the so called “imposition of hands on eyes”, a practice of poking two eyes to rid the person of secular desire, Jung youn-seok, head of cult information resources thinktank told Reuters.
“Such an act is extremely dangerous and non-biblical. It is an outright ban in Korean Christianity,” Jung said, adding that the pastor’s mother was a powerful figure and was ousted from Christian community in the 1990s for practising identical rituals.
Calls to the church went unanswered.
South Korea this month switched to a “living with Covid” plan aimed at lifting rigid distancing rules and ultimately reopening after reaching vaccination goals last month.
Since then there has been a sharp rise in cases with a fresh daily record of infections on Tuesday.
Looking at the metropolitan Seoul area alone, the situation is critical enough to impose an emergency plan at any time, prime minister Kim Boo-kyum told a Covid response meeting on Wednesday.
He called on health authorities to classify the patients accordingly based on the severity of the symptoms and make use of self-treatment options for mild or asymptomatic cases.
Less than 20% were treating themselves at home last week, Kim said.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said the emergency plan could be imposed if and when the nationwide ICU bed capacity surpasses 75% or depending on the risk assessment that reviews medical response shortfalls, surge in number of elderly patients and uptake in booster shots.
Around 71% of the ICU beds were full nationwide and 83.7% in the capital, Seoul, and neighbouring areas alone, Son Young-rae, a senior health ministry official, told a briefing, stressing ministry efforts to secure more beds with administrative order.
Hundreds were still waiting for beds.
Despite the increase in hospitalisation rate, the country’s mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.79%.