'Like a zombie apocalypse': Residents on edge as coronavirus cases surge in South Korea

By Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha

By Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) - Residents of a South Korean city at the centre of a new coronavirus outbreak described empty streets, deserted shops, and a climate of fear as a surge in confirmed cases linked to a church raised the prospect of wider transmission.

Malls, restaurants and streets in Daegu, the country's fourth largest city with a population of 2.5 million, were largely empty in scenes that residents and social media users likened to a disaster movie.

"It's like someone dropped a bomb in the middle of the city. It looks like a zombie apocalypse," Kim Geun-woo, a 28-year-old resident told Reuters by telephone.

"Even Dongseong-ro Street – the most crowded centre of the city – is empty," he said, adding that he had tried to buy surgical masks but shops were sold out.

Korea's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 53 new cases of the virus on Thursday, following 20 a day earlier, taking the total across the country to 104.

Of that national tally, 70 patients are from Daegu or nearby and the majority have been traced to an infected 61-year-old woman known as "Patient 31" who attended a church, a scenario that KCDC described as a "super-spreading event".

South Korea also reported the first death of a coronavirus patient, though the man's exact cause of death was being investigated.

The man was among 13 people at a hospital near Daegu who tested positive for the virus. Health officials said they were investigating whether there were links between the outbreak at the church and the hospital.

The hospital would be temporarily shut down and about 600 staff and patients would be tested for the virus, Yonhap news agency reported, citing officials.

Several major department stores, including at least one in Seoul, were closed after reports that Patient 31 had visited in recent weeks, Yonhap reported.


CITY ON EDGE

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin told residents to stay indoors as he warned of likely further cases.

"We are in an unprecedented crisis," he said at a briefing in the city, about 240 km (150 miles) southwest of the capital Seoul.

Kwon cautioned that at least 90 more of the about 1,000 other people who attended services at the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony were also showing symptoms.

"We plan to test all believers of that church and have asked them to stay at home isolated from their families," Kwon said.

South Korea's vice health minister Kim Kang-lip said at a separate briefing in the administrative city of Sejong that the situation was "very grave".

The cases previously reported in South Korea had mostly involved people who had travelled individually to China or come into contact with somebody who had, but it is unclear how Patient 31 contracted the virus.

Daegu authorities ordered the shutdown of all kindergartens, while all schools will postpone the beginning of the spring semester scheduled for early March by one week in an unprecedented move, Yonhap said.

The Defence Ministry banned troops stationed in Daegu from leaving their barracks and receiving guests, while a soldier who had recently visited his home in Daegu tested positive for the virus.

The U.S. military imposed similar restrictions on its army base in the city, which houses thousands of troops, family members and civilian employees, curbing travel and closing schools and child-care centres.


CHURCH CLOSED

Media footage showed the few people on Daegu's usually bustling downtown streets wore face masks and kept far apart.

Topics such as "Daegu lockdown" and "Daegu church" were among the top searches on major South Korean portal Naver as debate heated up online about whether the city should be sealed off from the rest of the country. A KCDC official told Reuters the government was not considering that measure.

The church at the centre of the outbreak is a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious movement founded in 1984 by South Korean Lee Man-hee who has about 500,000 followers.

Some commentators on social media blamed the custom of churchgoers sitting on the floor close to each other during services as increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

Shincheonji said on Wednesday it had closed its Daegu church and instructed that services elsewhere be held online or individually at home.


(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Jane Wardell and Josh Smith)