Little-known sect at the centre of Covid outbreak in South Korea

Community is 90% unvaccinated, led by pastor who pokes eyes to heal

SEOUL A little-known sect led by a pastor who pokes eyes to heal is at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea, as the country reported a new daily record of 4,116 cases for Tuesday and battles a spike in serious cases which is straining hospitals.

In a tiny church in a town of 427 residents south of Seoul, at least 241 people linked to the religious community had tested positive for the coronavirus, a city official said yesterday.

"We believe the scale of the outbreak is large...," the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.

About 90 per cent of the religious community was unvaccinated and the majority were in close contact through communal living.

Many of the congregation were elderly, in their 60s and above and were unvaccinated, the city official said. Just 17 out of the 241 confirmed cases had been vaccinated.

"I believe it is the church's anti-government beliefs that kept the members from getting the vaccine," the official said, adding that the town was put under a lockdown.

However, the KDCA said it was not possible to determine precisely why such a large number was unvaccinated.

The church opened in the early 1990s and has since become larger with communal living facilities of its own.

The religion is not officially registered as a sect.

The ritual act the pastor performs is known as the "imposition of hands on eyes", a practice of poking the eyes to get rid of secular desire, Jung Youn-seok, head of a cult information resources think-tank told Reuters.


The outbreak is a small portion of the national total, but is an example of a cluster with a high concentration of cases.

South Korea this month switched to a "living with Covid-19" plan aimed at lifting rigid distancing rules and ultimately reopening after reaching vaccination goals last month.

Since then, there has been a sharp rise in cases with a fresh daily record of infections on Tuesday.

Looking at the metropolitan Seoul area alone, the situation is critical enough to impose an emergency plan at any time, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a Covid-19 response meeting yesterday.

Hospitals were treating 586 severe Covid-19 patients as at Tuesday midnight, rapidly filling up limited hospital beds for serious and critical cases. More than 85 per cent of them were 60 or older, KDCA data showed.

Despite the increase in hospitalisation rate, the country's mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.79 per cent.

The country has fully vaccinated 79.1 per cent of its 52 million people, while just 4.1 per cent have been given a booster dose. - REUTERS