A second wave of coronavirus is crashing on South Korea – a country once hailed for its response to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
The Asian nation of 52 million people reported 279 new cases on Sunday, more than double the 103 reported on Friday, with most of the new infections found in and around Seoul. It comes as people took to the streets, with huge crowds gathering to protest the government over the weekend.
The figures released by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday brought the national caseload to 15,318, including 305 deaths.
The number of new cases is the highest since 367 on March 8 when the country was concentrating public health tools and personnel nationwide to bring an outbreak in a less populated southern region under control.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo urged people to stay home on Monday, a special holiday the government had drawn up with hopes of spurring domestic consumption, and for residents in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province to avoid visiting other parts of the country for two weeks.
Frustrations at the latest outbreak have been directed at a conservative pastor who is accused of violating self-isolation rules and obstructing contact tracing at a church where 240 infections have fuelled the country's worst cluster in more than five months.
The focus on the Sarang Jeil Church, led by Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon, has revived bad memories of the country's biggest outbreak, among followers of a secretive Christian sect back in February.
Aside from the infections linked to the church, there were also smaller clusters, including about 30 cases linked to a Starbucks outlet in the city of Paju, north of Seoul.
The surge in COVID-19 cases prompted authorities on Sunday to reimpose tighter social-distancing curbs in the Seoul metropolitan area.
The health ministry said it had filed a complaint against Rev Jun, an outspoken government critic, for violating self-isolation rules by taking part in a rally on Saturday, and for “obstructing” a medical investigation into the outbreak by failing to provide a full list of church members for testing and tracing.
There are concerns the spread could worsen after thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in Seoul despite official pleas to stay home.
On Saturday, a National Liberation Day holiday in both Koreas, thousands of demonstrators took part in street protests against President Moon Jae-in's policies, defying a ban on rallies in the capital.
Mr Moon said the latest outbreak posed the biggest challenge to efforts in combating COVID-19 since the large cluster of infections traced to secretive religious sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus six months ago.
On August 1, South Korean authorities arrested the sect's founder, Lee Man-hee, for allegedly hiding crucial information from contact-tracers.
Mr Moon warned of "stern and strong measures" against "some churches", calling their behaviour an "unforgivable act that threatens public lives".
with Reuters and AP
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