Lessons For America: How South Korean Authorities Used Law To Fight The Coronavirus

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Chinese social media has taken note, reportedly "taking pleasure" in the mishandling of the outbreak outside its borders, especially in democracies like the United States. Indeed, on both sides, the coronavirus outbreak continues to be a vehicle for proxy competition between democratic and authoritarian governance. While these broad-stroke observations about democracies and authoritarian regimes may be legitimate, they tend to reduce democracies into a monolithic bloc. This mode of analysis neglects important variations in the menu of powers and underlying laws available to democracies like South Korea and the United States during a public health crisis.

As South Korean church Korea continues to do battle with its coronavirus outbreak, one mysterious religious sect has been singled out and become a public target. Thousands of positive cases have been found in the country, many of which are linked to Shincheonji Church, a secretive group some say is more like a cult.

"Her behavior is not surprising to people familiar with the church," Chung Yun-seok, an expert on religious cults who runs the website Christian Portal News, told the Times. Patient No. 31 had visited Cheongdo, a city near Daegu where 16 patients and medical staff at a hospital have tested positive for the coronavirus and two of them died this week, according to the report.

While all of the church’s members have now been interviewed by officials, according to the BBC, roughly 9,000 of them are displaying symptoms. As public anger over the outbreak grows, some members have said they fear being outed as Shincheonji followers. "We’re being treated like criminals. We had a bad image before and now I think I’d be lynched if passers-by knew I belonged to Shincheonji," 26-year-old Ji-yeon Park told The Guardian. "Our church didn’t invent the virus. This is just an excuse to shift blame. Throughout history, minority groups have always been blamed for bad things happening in society.

Even the former President Park, from behind bars, has called for conservative political supporters to rally against the current administration. This can all be seen as a cynical attempt to drum up support for upcoming parliamentary elections in April. Ultimately, the coronavirus has painfully brought to light the reach of clandestine cults in Korea for the world to see. This should prompt the government to enact long overdue reforms to monitor the behavior of fringe groups and religious sects. Yet it has also exposed the cruel cynicism of the political establishment in politicizing an unprecedented health crisis.