By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea
In a Korean city less than 20 km from Seoul, mass panic and chaos ensue as a lethal, airborne flu virus infects hundreds of people by the minute. Inflicted with rashes and vomiting blood, those infected die within 36 hours, which leads to a city-wide shutdown and inhumane detainments of Bundang’s inhabitants, who are indiscriminately condemned to extermination by a political elite. A giant claw machine lifts masses of bodies and throws them into a pit to be incinerated, regardless of whether or not some of those people are still alive.
These apocalyptic scenes are from a 2013 South Korean film directed by Kim Sung-soo, the “Flu,” which played on people’s fear of an outbreak threatening to decimate the human race. As is the case with many other disaster films, the movie takes a premise on scientific facts though it is extrapolated to an exaggerated end.
But the movie echoes to some degree what the world is currently facing. Spreading at a breakneck speed is the threat of the novel strain of coronavirus from China, COVID-19, which has infected close to 80,000 people since December and put a number of countries including Korea on guard.
Korea has been scrambling to contain the virus -- but to no avail so far. Sudden spikes in new infections over the past few days have rendered it the most coronavirus-hit country outside of China, which has led the government to raise its anti-virus alert level to the highest, and the outbreak, which has resulted in close to 900 confirmed infections and nine deaths, has no signs of abating anytime soon.
President Moon Jae-in urged authorities after an emergency meeting with senior officials on Sunday to take “unprecedented, powerful” measures so as to stop the spread of the respiratory disease. Action taken by Korea falls short of containment measures seen in China, ranging from temporary shutdowns of schools to limited operation of public transportation and flights to and from Korea and to mass lockdowns of cities.
But two and a half million people in the southeastern city of Daegu, 320km from Seoul, have been placed under virtual quarantine, after a 61-year-old woman who had not traveled to China but had sought care at a hospital was confirmed to have been infected last week.
A member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, formally known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, a religious group founded in 1984 by South Korean Lee Man-hee, the woman is believed to have transmitted the coronavirus to dozens of worshippers during a church service, who subsequently infected many others in Daegu and different parts of the country.
The scores of new cases centered on the Christian sect, much of whose operation is veiled, have stirred fear across the country, prompting South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun to designate the city and its adjacent county Cheongdo as “special care zones” and Daegu’s mayor to ask its residents to stay home.
As a result, silence has engulfed the city, with streets abandoned, public facilities closed and people going into seclusion.
“The once-bustling part of the city is virtually a ghost town, with no cars on the road,” said Hwang Seok-jin, 27, a graduate student at Kyungpook National University in Daegu. “People are very sensitive at this time. They scowled at me when they saw me without a protective mask.”
But the isolation the government has fostered is spawning criticism from Daegu inhabitants and others, who question its ability to cope with national crisis.
“It’s funny that the government is isolating its own people in a situation where they can’t even stop people coming in from China,” 28-year-old Joey Kwon said. “Nothing is going to be solved only by isolating Daegu since the virus has already invaded into many other parts of the country.”
While South Korea has enhanced quarantine screening to visitors from China, as well as those from Hong Kong and Macao, it said it is not considering barring entry to citizens of China, which has caused some turbulence in the political sphere and in the academia.
China has so far reported close to 78,000 cases of the disease, including more than 2,600 deaths. Wuhan, the city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, is still under strict lockdown despite rumors that it is relaxing strict travel restrictions.
Elsewhere, in Italy, about 230 confirmed cases and seven deaths were reported, which led to the implementation of draconian measures to halt the virus from further spreading – such as imposing fines on anyone entering or leaving outbreak areas. And in Iran, the death toll has risen to 12.
As pointed out by President Moon, the coming few days will be the critical time for Korea, and failure to contain the virus could signal the start of a global pandemic.
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