THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE FACE OF COVID-19 (4) – The Korean Way: unity and efficiency

– Fr Leonard Dollentas

South Korea is one of the earliest countries to report a significant coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The outbreak began almost like Italy’s, where there were slow drip cases but soon escalated dramatically – from thirty recorded cases to an alarming number increasing uncontrollably.

According to a news report, the worsening can be traced to a woman dubbed as “patient 31” who had been ill and had repeatedly ignored pleas to be tested. The woman was a member of a quasi-Christian sect – the Shincheonji (New Heaven and New Earth) Church. The vast number of coronavirus cases were reported to have possibly circulated amongst the members of this sect. Almost instantly, South Korea imposed extraordinary measures to contain the spread of the virus, including the process of painstakingly tracing the members of the sect and subjecting them to tests, isolations, and medical care. With such an approach, the new cases have declined.

According to Kee Park, a lecturer on global health at Harvard Medical School, the response was fused with Korean technological ingenuity. He explains that Koreans are very good at making things convenient for people aided by more advanced information technology. For instance, as cellphones are used for just about everything in South Korea, during the pandemic period, they were utilized for tracking and warning purposes. Hence, South Korea is viewed as a model for other countries in the fight against COVID-19. A number of experts claim that the primary factors contributing to the Korean success at controlling the contagion include its rapid response at the first signs of the crisis and the extensive cooperation of the population.

The Korean Catholic Church has been taking an important part as well in the initiatives to fight the spread of the dreaded virus. Since the start of the crisis, the Church has called on people to stay calm and be socially responsible.

Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik of Daejeon, who chairs the Social Affairs Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK) recalled: “The situation is difficult but we will be able to overcome it, praying and trying to understand what God wants from and for us.”

The Bishop initiated practical ways to help the people, linking prayers with works of mercy by asking them to fast every Friday: “The food they won’t eat will be collected and distributed to people in need. Thus, we shall also help coronavirus victims in a practical way. On Friday, we shall recite the Rosary for the end of the epidemic.”

It is so inspiring to note that at the beginning of the outbreak in China and following the example of Pope Francis, the Diocese of Daejeon has launched an initiative in favor of the growing need of the people of China. The Korean Catholics raised funds to buy masks, other protective gear, and personal care products to be sent to China.

Bishop Lazarus reminded everyone believer how they should continue fighting the virus: “Christians must undertake other actions in addition to prayers. Even reciting the Rosary every day is enough, or other deeds of charity and penance. Recently, I was touched by the many doctors and nurses – many of them Catholic – who went to Daegu, which is short of medical staff. Some homeowners are also cutting rents to help people. These are signs of great solidarity, stories that move people’s hearts.”

(In photo: Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik of Daejeon. Image courtesy of