‘Patient 31’ and South Korea’s sudden spike in coronavirus cases

In the space of a couple of weeks, South Korea has gone from dealing with a few cases of coronavirus to thousands and now finds itself in the throes of an outbreak that has become the largest outside China.

It is a story that is slowly clarifying: A single “super-spreader” known as “patient 31” – a member of a fringe church called Shincheonji – is thought to have caused the rapid rise in cases. Now, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has filed a formal complaint against the congregation, accusing it of murder.

At least 29 people have died in the outbreak and more than 4,800 people formally diagnosed with the virus as of March 3.

“The situation here was not really serious until mid-February. It began to get very serious starting with patient 31,” said Hwang Seung-sik, a spatio-temporal epidemiologist at Seoul National University.

“Before patient 31, our strategies to contain the virus were working. But after countless people were infected by patient 31, it became very difficult to control.”

COVID-19 is affecting more than people’s health: Cafes and small businesses have closed their doors, college graduations have been permanently cancelled, after-school tutors have been laid off and major, life-changing job exams have been postponed.

The worst of it is in Daegu, a southeastern city where roughly 70 percent of confirmed cases are concentrated. Apart from the queues to buy the few remaining disposable face masks, the crowds of shoppers have disappeared.

“I’m really worried about an economic downturn,” said Yoon Gi-yong, a 22-year-old university student who lives in Daegu. “A lot of shops here are closing their doors, and my boss lamented to me that business is really bad these days.”

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