Lessons from South Korea on Covid-19 preventive measures

Tuesday March 17 2020

Airport personnel prepare for passengers arriving on international flights at the port health desk where they are screened for signs of the novel coronavirus at Entebbe Airport on March 3, 2020. PHOTO | SUMY SADURNI | AFP


Authorities in South Korea have rued the missed chance they had in arresting the surge of coronavirus cases in their country, when they let a suspected patient walk back to her community.

By Tuesday this week, South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control had reported 8,320 cases of Covid-19, 81 deaths and 1,401 fully recovered patients.

Though Seoul reported its first case of Covid-19 on January 20, officials say it shouldn’t have spread this way.

It all began on February 18, when a woman only identified as ‘Patient 31’ checked into a South Korean hospital displaying symptoms associated with the new coronavirus. But the woman reportedly refused to take a Covid-19 test even after her doctor advised it.

It turned out she was a member of the Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), a highly secretive sect in South Korea and which the Korean CDC says two thirds of the Covid-19 cases in the country are associated with.
The woman, 61, came from Daegu, a city in South Korea with about 2.5 million people, where the church has a significant following.

South Korean officials say the woman initially refused to take the test as she feared it could lead to her revealing her church members. She also insisted that she had not travelled overseas and had not contacted an infected person. The woman would later be forced back to the hospital after her condition became worse. But she had infected many more of her church members.
The Church, began in 1984 by leader Lee Man-hee, who is seen as the only interpreter of the Book of Revelations, follows some secretive practices including keeping their membership to themselves. The Korean CDC, however, found the church had a branch in Wuhan in China, where the virus was first reported, and some members had travelled from there recently.



Inside South Korea, their members prayed close to each other, operated in secrecy, and accessed the church using a finger-print reading system. And as each member placed a finger on the same surface, it is possible the virus spread among members, before spreading to nearby communities. All this time, Korean authorities were legally barred from interfering with freedom of worship. Three days after Patient 31 showed up in hospital, South Korea’s cases reached 346, becoming the biggest incidences reported outside China then.
Korean officials last week reported more recoveries than infections. The country largely depended on lessons learnt from the missed opportunity, according to a report by the local CDC.
The Church’s officials put out a statement denying they hindered preventive measures.

“Controlling and preventing infectious diseases is a serious matter which is directly related to the health of people and may cause social anxiety from concerns of infection.
“The church is assisting in thorough investigation and diagnosis following the instructions of the health department,” the Church says on a statement on its website.
Whether their practices hindered prevention or not, reflects how deep religious beliefs and misinformation about medical facts may hinder combating the virus.

In east Africa, where coronavirus cases have risen, experts warned misinformation or dangerous beliefs could be just as harmful.

In Kenya, for example, authorities have in the past used force to implement some medical programmes like polio immunisation, especially in communities that follow stringent religious beliefs against medication. Others choose to believe their deities rather than advice from medical experts.

“It appears to be in our nature to consistently appeal to supernatural forces whenever faced with a serious threat instead of taking practical measures to deal with emergent threats,” Sunday Nation columnist Lukoye Atwoli, an associate professor of psychiatry at Moi University School of Medicine, said in his column.
“When it comes to public health, it is important to understand the science behind a problem in order to be able to control it.”

In Korea, authorities began a programme where motorists can drive through a centre, give samples and be contacted later in case they test positive. That has helped reduce the rates of infections.


An analysis by the Poynter Institute last week found a series of misinformation concerning religion and races, where false purveyors claimed some religions can be good shields against Covid-19.

“Religion is not a way to protect yourself against the new disease,” the Institute observed.

“These beliefs can keep infected people away from real treatment, and those who are at risk of contamination far from preventative measures, promoting real harm.”
Last year, the World Health Organisation had to appeal to Facebook to flag false information about vaccines, after the global health body was met with rising advocates against immunisation.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Vaccine misinformation is a major threat to global health that could reverse decades of progress made in tackling preventable diseases.

“Many debilitating and deadly diseases can be effectively prevented by vaccines. Think measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, polio, cholera, yellow fever, influenza…”
Covid-19 doesn’t have a vaccine yet, but Dr Tedros admitted recently that misinformation about the virus was still a challenge.

In East Africa though, officials have also been pushed to advise against cash to prevent potential spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Someone like a tout who collects cash all the time should put on disposable gloves,” said Dr Diana Atwine, Uganda’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, in a series of public awareness tweets on Monday.

“Money has been proven to be a great source of infections,” she said.

In Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta called on vendors to facilitated use of non-cash payments. But all the East African countries use public transport systems where service providers largely accept cash payments.