The Korean authorities have garnered significant praise for their effective response to COVID- 19. However, the country’s experience has not been without controversy. A significant proportion of cases were publicly attributed to a religious congregation, Shincheonji (SCJ), and the authorities’ dealings with its members raise questions about compliance with a number of human rights.
SCJ is a Christian church with multiple outposts in Korea and internationally. Concerning COVID-19, it was initially assumed that several SCJ members caught the virus in Korea. By March 8th, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced that the outbreak associated with SCJ totaled 4,482 infections of Korean cases.
Despite its size (320,000 members in a country of 52 million), SCJ has built a high public profile, and its unpopularity provided an opportunity for church critics. SCJ members were repeatedly cited in the media as concealing their membership, and failing to comply to COVID- 19 health protocol. Allegations were also exacerbated by officials.
The KCDC and government repeatedly issued press releases explicitly linking SCJ to the outbreak, contributing to public paranoia and media frenzy. SCJ members were verbally abused, dismissed from jobs, and publicly “outed”. In March, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced a lawsuit against 12 SCJ leaders “for murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management
of infectious diseases.”
Following the lawsuit, under Article 76, IDCPA was employed to extract surveillance footage, credit card histories and cellular geolocation data of both confirmed and potential patients without judicial approval. The authorities disclosed a large amount of information that, although generally pseudonymised, made certain individuals readily identifiable online, including their
links to SCJ.
Despite the media allegations and lawsuits, Shincheonji Church of Jesus has been cooperating with the government in a multitude of ways to help develop COVID-19 therapies. Currently about 4,000 of the cured COVID-19 members of the Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, decided to donate plasma in hopes of developing a new treatment. The amount of donated blood will be about $83 billion worth if the 4,000 patients donate 500ml individually, according to officials in the United States.
“It is difficult to accelerate developing a medicine for COVID-19 with only 200 recovered patients who expressed their will to donate blood. The massive donation from the recovered patients in the Shincheonji Church will solve the problem of the lack of blood for research,” said an official from Green Cross Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company in South Korea.
Through this epidemic, prioritization of public health over individual privacy or religious freedom may be justified; but there are limits to consider when concerning the identity of those equally impacted. Members within SCJ have had to face struggles, limiting their lives and ability to practice religion intentionally meant to be harmless.
At this time, we would like to express our appreciation to all the people who have been working hard to help control and cure COVID-19 without any prejudice. We apologize for any worries and anxieties that may have risen within the public.