GP Insights

GP Insights # 410, 5 September 2020

South Korea: The return of COVID and a Church controversy
Harini Madhusudan

What happened?
On 30 August, South Korea announced a nationwide lockdown this week and once again, the non-compliance of protocols by a Church has led to the spread. Earlier, on 15 August 2020, a major rally in Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square contributed to a nationwide resurgence of COVID-19, after which the number of cases steadily increased in triple digits for 20 days. Despite showing concerns over the economic fallouts of a lockdown, the government announced tighter social distancing rules and announced the lockdown stricter than the first one from March 2020. 

On 2 September 2020, Pastor Jun Kwang-Hoon of the Sarang Jaeil Church made a public apology for the concerns he and the church have caused. 

On 4 September the doctors returned to work; earlier, they went on a strike against the government's decision to introduce reforms given the inappropriate timing and the government's flawed plan for its doctors. 

What is the background? 
First, South Korea, as an initial success story. South Korea has been considered as a global success model of COVID management. It had shown outstanding abilities in containing the spread in the early months and also has been consistent with management in terms of new cases and tracing. 

Second, the spike in cases, in the second wave. This is the second time South Korea faces a spike in cases, and both times, a significant number of cases were traced to specific churches. To contain this spread, South Korea announced restrictions on social gatherings, the operation of restaurants, churches, nightclubs, most public schools and multiple other institutions. The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a wave of coronavirus clusters erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities and the struggle to trace the spread. A lot of industries and educational systems that did not go on lockdown the first time have been forced to close down. 

Third, the Church controversy. Conservative Pastors who hail from large churches, in 2004 had established the Korean Christian Party. Pastors are known to try and expand their political influences through religious gatherings. Pastor Jun Kwang Hoon of the Sarang Jaeil Church is also the President of the Christian Council of Korea, one of the leading groups of conservative protestants in South Korea. Anti- scientism attitudes are at the core of these groups, and when the rally took place on 15 August 2020, it was a large gathering organized by these far-right groups. Jun Kwang Hoon was hospitalized after contracting the virus and returned on 2 September 2020. 

What does it mean? 
South Korea was one of the first countries to see a sudden surge in the number of cases during Feb-Mar 2020. Now South Korea joins China, New Zealand, some parts of Europe, who have all begun to observe the second wave of the coronavirus. Though the doctors have joined back to work now, the shortage of workforce and the shortage of beds indicate that no one foresaw the spike in cases. There is also a sense of an underlying domestic political issue between the ruling government and the church leadership. 

South Korea, like China, is an export-based economy and a pause in its functions could have an impact on the supply chains. The lockdown in South Korea comes at a time when globally, for fear of economic failures, countries have chosen to open their economies.

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