South Korea Closes Schools, Imposes Mask Mandate Amid ‘Severe Emergency’

Author image

Alison Durkee   Forbes U.S. Staff

South Korea Closes Schools, Imposes Mask Mandate Amid ‘Severe Emergency’

Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Jana Sabeth/Unsplash

South Korea, a country hailed throughout the pandemic for its response to Covid-19, imposed new social distancing measures Monday and warned a stricter lockdown could be coming, as a new outbreak tied to a far-right church has spurred what President Moon Jae-in called Monday a “severe emergency.”

KEY FACTS

- The government ordered masks to be worn indoors and outdoors in Seoul, the capital city, amid a surge in infections largely tied to the Seoul-based Sarang Jeil Church and an anti-government rally held Aug. 15.

- The country’s Ministry of Education also announced that nearly 2,000 schools had suspended classes amid the new outbreak.

- South Korea has recorded daily Covid-19 cases in the triple digits since Aug. 14; the outbreak has spread throughout the country’s 17 provinces for the first time, the BBC notes, and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that despite the country’s extensive contact tracing efforts, approximately 20% of new cases are of unknown origin.

- Efforts to curb the spread have been hampered by the Sarang Jeil Church—linked to more than 800 recent cases—whose leadership and membership is largely distrustful of Moon’s government and has resisted government efforts to contact and trace infected members; many reportedly believe a conspiracy theory suggesting the virus was intentionally planted in the church by the government to bring it down.

- Moon said Monday that the country will impose its strictest level-three lockdown measures if the virus cannot be contained, warning that a more severe outbreak could result in a “huge economic blow” and “the medical [service] system may collapse.”

- The president noted that “some in our society are...blatantly obstructing or refusing to cooperate the health effort,” decrying acts to obstruct government efforts as an “anti-social crime that harms the community.”

CRUCIAL QUOTE

“We are facing a new crisis. It's a much more severe emergency than the Shincheonji situation in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis,” Moon said Monday, referring to a previous church-linked outbreak that infected more than 5,000 people. “Seoul and the metropolitan area have become the centers of spread, and nowhere else in the country is safe.”

BIG NUMBER

2,893: The number of Covid-19 cases reported in South Korea over the past 11 days alone, as reported by Yonhap News Agency, including 266 reported on Monday.

KEY BACKGROUND

South Korea has been viewed as one of the most successful countries in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s Covid-19 response—centered around extensive contact tracing, testing and self-isolation efforts—had kept case numbers low and curbed the previous Shincheonji church outbreak in the early days of the pandemic. South Korea’s successful response was also built on trust between the government and public, however, the Atlantic noted in May, underlining how the Sarang Jeil Church’s anti-government views have exacerbated the latest outbreak. “A delicate balance of trust…drives the entire thing,” South Korea-based writer Yung in Chae told the Atlantic about the country’s coronavirus efforts.

TANGENT

New Zealand, another country praised for its pandemic response that’s experiencing a new Covid-19 outbreak, extended lockdown measures in Auckland Monday for an additional four days. The latest lockdown measures have been met with more resistance than at the start of the pandemic, spurring an anti-lockdown march over the weekend, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern credited the country’s early lockdown measures with keeping the outbreak from becoming even worse. “If [this year] feels hard—that’s because it has been,” Ardern said Monday. “But let’s also remember, in a world where 2020 has frankly been terrible, we are strong, we have been kind, and we are doing really well.”

 

Author image

Alison Durkee   Forbes U.S. Staff

I am a New York-based journalist covering breaking news at Forbes. I previously covered politics and news for Vanity Fair and Mic, and as a theater critic I serve as a member of the New York Outer Critics Circle.