Coronavirus: South Korea church leader apologises for virus spread

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The head of the religious sect that has been at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea has apologised to the nation for the disease’s spread.

Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, apologies for the spread of the coronavirus among members, at a facility of the church in Gapyeong.

Lee Man-hee, the leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, got on his knees and bowed at a news conference.

About 60 percent of the country’s more than 4000 confirmed cases are sect members. Deaths nationwide now stand at 28.

Fatalities globally have now passed the 3000 mark, although the vast majority are in China, where the outbreak began.

Worldwide, there have been almost 90,000 confirmed cases, with the numbers outside China now growing faster than inside China.

Prosecutors in South Korea have been asked to investigate Lee on possible charges of gross negligence.

“Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” said the 88-year-old leader. “We put our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all.”

Of the confirmed cases, about 75 percent are from the southern city of Daegu and 73 percent of those have been linked to the Shincheonji Church.

In the capital, Seoul, the mayor urged the city’s 10 million residents to work from home and to avoid crowded places.

Senegal Health's minister Ablaye Diouf Sarr speaks during a press conference as Senegal's first case of Covid-19 was confirmed.

In other developments:

  • The European Centre for Disease Control has confirmed the risk level in the EU has increased from “moderate” to “moderate-to-high”. It was clarifying a comment from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had said the level had been changed to “high”. Several European countries have confirmed cases, with Italy the worst affected with more than 1500 infected and 34 deaths.
  • In the UK, where there are 40 confirmed cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the virus was “likely to become more significant in the days and weeks ahead”, after holding a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee.
  • Indonesia – one of the world’s most populous countries – announced its first confirmed cases of coronavirus, a 64-year-old woman and her 31-year-old daughter, currently being treated at a Jakarta hospital.
  • Portugal, Iceland, Jordan, Senegal, Tunisia, Armenia and Andorra also reported their first confirmed cases today.
  • The global economy could grow at its slowest rate since 2009 this year due to the outbreak, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned. Markets had a rollercoaster ride in Europe and in initial trading in New York. Concerns about the outbreak last week wiped more than US$5 trillion from global stocks.
  • US sportswear giant Nike has closed its European headquarters in Hilversum in the Netherlands after an employee tested positive for the virus.

Shincheonji Church

Members of the fringe Christian group are believed to have infected one another and then travelled around the country, apparently undetected. The group has been accused of keeping its members’ names secret, making it harder to track the outbreak.

But church spokesperson Kim Shin-chang told the BBC they had provided a list of members, students, and buildings to authorities.

“We were worried about releasing this information because of the safety of our members,” Kim said.

Lee claims he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and identifies as “the promised pastor” mentioned in the Bible who will take 144,000 people to Heaven with him.

The Shincheonji Church is labelled as a cult within South Korea and also in the Christian community, which results in the group often being discriminated against, persecuted or criticised, Kim told the BBC.

South Korean soldiers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as part of preventive measures against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at a market in Daegu.

Iran reported another 12 deaths today, taking the total there to 66. They include Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a high-ranking adviser to the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian media reported.

Qatar, Ecuador, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Ireland were among countries that confirmed their first cases over the weekend.

Ecuador reported five new cases of the disease, bringing the total number of infected patients in the country to six.

The US state of New York also confirmed its first case. The patient is a woman in her 30s who contracted the virus during a recent trip to Iran. Two people have died in the US, both in the state of Washington.

Situation in China

China has reported 42 more deaths, all in Hubei. The Chinese province was where the virus emerged late last year and it has registered more than 90 percent of the global fatalities.

There were 202 confirmed new cases early this morning – only six of which were outside Hubei. A total of 2912 people have died inside China, with more than 80,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

A spokesman from China’s National Health Commission said the next stop would be to “focus on the risks brought by the resumption of work”.

China’s economy has taken a hit – with factory activity falling at a record rate.

A man was sentenced to death by a Chinese court yesterday for fatally stabbing two officials at a virus checkpoint, news agency AFP reported.

Ma Jianguo, 23, refused to co-operate with officials – though it is not clear what he was told to do – and stabbed two checkpoint officials.

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