As Virus Spreads, Koreans Blame Refusal to Stop Chinese Visitors

Kyungji Cho, Yoojung Lee, Heesu Lee and Kyunghee Park

(Bloomberg) -- In a matter of days, South Korea has swung from confidence that it had escaped the worst of the coronavirus outbreak to a cautionary tale of how quickly the disease can plunge a nation into crisis.

Confirmed cases of the deadly disease surged past 2,000 on Friday -- doubling in two days and raising alarm about the worst outbreak outside of neighboring China. Supermarket shelves are emptying, mask prices are soaring and hospital beds are running out in Daegu city, where the disease has stricken many from a religious sect. Epidemiological models predict that infections in Korea will top 10,000 in March.

The surge has citizens looking for someone to blame, prompting fresh criticism of South Korea President Moon Jae-in, who confidently predicted two weeks ago that the virus would be terminated “before long” while refusing calls to halt all arrivals from China. With 13 dead from the virus, public fury is coalescing around the government’s handling of the outbreak, especially its efforts to accommodate the country’s bigger, more powerful neighbor.

“The government failed to contain this outbreak,” said Kim Su-yeon, a self-development lecturer who lives in Suji, near Seoul. “They were late in their response and they should have blocked the Chinese from coming in from the start,” Kim said, adding, “They have been ineffective in all of their policies.”

Governments in places including Japan and Hong Kong have suffered similar backlash for being slow to restrict Chinese visitors, while others that took a harder line, such as Singapore and Taiwan, have seen the pace of new cases slow. Still, it may already be too late for any policy shifts, with outbreaks centered in countries as far-flung as Iran and Italy making it harder to calibrate travel restrictions.

Ban Entry

In Korea, disapproval of Moon has risen five percentage points to 51%, the highest since October, according to a weekly Gallup Korea tracking poll released Friday. Some 41% were satisfied by the president’s handling of the virus, compared with 64% two weeks ago. Tellingly, almost two-thirds said they wanted the government to ban all foreign entries from China, rather than the current policy of barring visitors from certain hot spots.

The anger is translating into action, with more than 1.2 million people signing a petition demanding Moon’s impeachment for taking what it calls a pro-China approach to the outbreak. The backlash comes just weeks ahead of April 15 parliamentary elections that could put the president’s rivals back into power. A competing petition supporting Moon and the government has garnered more than 900,000 signatures.

Moon spokesman Kang Min-seok called criticism of the country’s entry policies “regrettable” and argued that they had helped stem new cases from China.

“We’ve rationally taken into consideration the effectiveness of outbreak-prevention measures, as well as the interests of our people,” Kang said in a statement Thursday.

Coronavirus: Places That Have Imposed Travel Restrictions

Infections in South Korea are now accelerating more quickly than in China. Daily life has largely ground to a halt in hard-hit Daegu, a southern city of 2.5 million people known for producing textile and apples that’s long been a stronghold of the conservative opposition.

“When the president said the virus will soon be under control and that we can go back to our everyday life to continue economic activities, that’s when people started to take their protective masks off, and things got out of hand from there,” said Lee Haemin, a 31-year-old man in the financial industry living in Seoul. “The local economy is now on the verge of falling apart.”

Now, buses are empty, restaurants are shut and kids are staying home from school. A concert featuring K-Pop boy band BTS scheduled for March 8 was postponed. Seomun market -- the city’s largest, where vendors hawk everything from fresh vegetables to clothing -- has been closed until Sunday.

“Our business is in trouble and we might need to extend the shutdown if this continues,” said Kim Young-ou, president of the Daegu Merchant Association. “I asked the president for financial aid and tax deductions when he visited Daegu, but I don’t know if it’s feasible.”

Economic Hit

Anxiety about the impact on the economy is rising across the country, with the Bank of Korea on Thursday lowering its growth forecast for 2020 to 2.1% from 2.3% in November. The benchmark Kospi index had its worst week since August 2011. Korea’s Finance Ministry said Friday that stabilizing the economy would require extra budget funds in excess of the 6.2 trillion won ($5.1 billion) spent to counter the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, outbreak five years ago.

Many Daegu cases have been traced back to South Korea’s “Patient 31,” a 61-year-old local woman who belongs to the Shincheonji religious sect. The church, whose founder says he’s a prophet sent by Jesus Christ to prepare for the end of the word, claims it has 300,000 members. Congregates sit elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee, in services that typically last one to two hours.

How One Patient Turned Korea’s Virus Outbreak Into an Epidemic

While authorities don’t yet know how Patient 31 was infected -- she didn’t have a record of traveling overseas -- reports of the sect’s members returning from services in China have inflamed public sentiment. Moreover, several Chinese cities have in recent days moved to enforce quarantines on anyone who recently returned from South Korea, a blanket action of the sort that Seoul has so far spared Chinese arrivals.

Fraught Relations

Despite strong business and cultural links, China and South Korea have a complex and fraught relationship, including a shared history of Japanese occupation and fighting on opposite sides in the Korean War. Recent tensions, like how China froze out South Korean businesses and stopped tourism in 2017 after Seoul agreed to host a U.S.-backed missile system, linger close to the surface.

Moon’s government fueled public anger when Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said in an exchange with lawmakers Wednesday that the “biggest cause was Korean nationals coming in from China.” He was emphasizing that most of the initial confirmed cases involved Korean nationals who visited Wuhan, not Chinese nationals visiting Korea.

The administration has come under fire for failing to stockpile protective masks and sending many to China, when the country now faces shortages. South Korea exported $61.3 million worth of masks to China in January, up from $600,000 in December, according to customs data. Another $118.5 million of masks were sent in the first 20 days of February.

‘Hasty Call’

“Moon apparently prioritized the economy and diplomacy -- two issues that will really matter once the virus situation is over -- based on a hasty call that this will be over soon,” said Lee Jae-mook, who teaches political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “That made sense to the majority of South Koreans only before they saw other nations do the opposite: sacrifice potential economic benefit for the sake of people’s safety.”

On Wednesday, the government limited mask exports to only 10% of daily production and pledged to distribute 3.5 million masks daily via post offices and pharmacies. Health authorities are also now testing around 10,000 people a day while sending extra hospital beds to Daegu.

That’s done little to relieve anxiety for residents like Cho Eun-mi. The 32-year-old mother of two says she’s too afraid to go outside.

“When I wake up, hundreds of patients are increasing every day,” she said. “The fact that those patients also visited places where I go, like Starbucks, supermarkets near my home, is really freaking me out.”

--With assistance from Peter Pae, Kanga Kong, Jihye Lee and Sam Kim.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kyungji Cho in Seoul at kcho54@bloomberg.net;Yoojung Lee in Seoul at ylee504@bloomberg.net;Heesu Lee in Seoul at hlee425@bloomberg.net;Kyunghee Park in Singapore at kpark3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rachel Chang at wchang98@bloomberg.net, Brendan Scott, Emma O'Brien

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