On February 7, 2020, a female member of a Christian new religious movement known as Shincheonji from Daegu, Republic of Korea, was hospitalized after a car accident. While in the hospital, she had symptoms of what was identified as a common cold. She insists that nobody mentioned coronavirus as a possibility to her, nor suggested a test. Only on February 18, after her symptoms worsened, she was diagnosed with pneumonia, then tested for COVID-19 and found positive. She was designated as Patient 31, and, before being diagnosed, had attended several functions of Shincheonji. As a result, she became the origin of hundreds of new infection cases, most of them involving fellow members of Shincheonji.
Some Korean media claimed she has refused to be tested before, but there is no evidence of this, and Patient 18 firmly denies this was the case.
Shincheonji’s leaders in Daegu learned that Patient 31 was infected at 9 a.m. on February 18. The same day, Shincheonji closed all its centers in Daegu, and recommended that all its members there avoid also private gatherings and meetings, and go into self-quarantine. Laterin the day, orders were issued to close all churches and mission centers throughout the Republic of Korea, and services continued only via the Internet. Shincheonji also suspended services and events abroad on February 22 and all forms of meetings, activities, or gatherings in all countries on February 26.
On February 19, South Korean President Moon Jae-In stated that the government needed a full list of members of Shincheonji. National lists were handed in six days from the request, on February 25. In the Republic of Korea, a strong opposition to Shincheonji exists, fueled by fundamentalist and conservative Christian churches, who accuse the movement of “heresy” and “sheep stealing,” and have often resorted to violence against it. Being identified as a member of Shincheonji may lead to be ridiculed, beaten, and to lose one’s job. It is thusnot surprising that individual members were reluctant to disclose to their co-workers or employers their membership in Shincheonji. The movement, however, instructed all members to cooperate with the authority and submit to COVID-19 tests. The government objected that the list of February 25 included less members than those mentioned in Shincheonji’s official statistics. But the latter also count foreign members, and Shincheonji had understood that the government needed only data about members in the Republic of Korea. Why exactly Korean authorities need to know the names of Shincheonji members in Europe or North America is unclear but, when they asked for the lists of foreign members, they received them as well.
The main problem concerned “students,” which is the name Shincheonji uses for people that are not members of the church but attend courses and other activities in the mission centers and may (or may not) one day join the church. Shincheonji had records of 54,176 such “students” in the Republic of Korea and 10,951 abroad. It also had serious privacy concerns about them. Notwithstanding the promises of the authorities, some member identities had been exposed. This was bad enough, but if one becomes a member of Shincheonji in the Republic of Korea, he or she is aware of the risks this involves. The same is not true for “students.” In fact, they may evaluate the risks and decide not to join—and of course the risks are higher now after anti-Shincheonji hostility peaked with the virus crisis. Shincheonji’s hesitation in disclosing the names of “students” was thus understandable. It is also understandable that health authorities believed that those who attended Shincheonji centers were all equally at risk to be infected, be they members or “students.” On February 27, the KCDC formally requested the list of “students,” and undertake to assume legal responsibility for any possible breach of privacy and related consequences. The list was handed the same day.
All this work involved communicating to the government lists involving some 300,000 names and addresses. That the exercise might have been entirely free of mistakes was beyond human possibilities. Local authorities raided Shincheonji premises with great fanfare, claiming they were looking for the “real” lists. When they compared the lists seized in the raids and those they had received from Shincheonji, however, they found only minor discrepancies, and admitted publicly that the movement had not tried to deceive them.