ASAN/SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – Angry South Koreans volleyed eggs and expletives on Thursday at a minister and officials trying to defuse their ire over plans to quarantine hundreds of citizens set to be flown home from the epicenter of a new virus epidemic in China.
Officials from a public health center sanitize a traditional palace in Suwon, South Korea, January 30, 2020. Yonhap/via REUTERS
The first of up to four flights planned to evacuate South Koreans from Wuhan had been expected to depart on Thursday morning, but China had only approved one flight, causing a delay until later in the day, South Korea’s foreign minister said.
South Korea also reported its fifth and sixth confirmed cases of the virus on Thursday, including the first case of a person infected in South Korea. Previous cases only involved people who had traveled to Wuhan.
About 700 South Koreans in Wuhan have registered to be flown out, but protesters in Asan and Jincheon, cities about 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul, the capital, used tractors on Wednesday to block access to facilities earmarked for quarantine centers.
In Asan, demonstrators threw eggs and shouted expletives when Chin Young, the minister of interior and safety, arrived to talk to them on Thursday, prompting police to hold up black umbrellas as a shield.
“If it’s so safe why don’t you bring them to your home?” one protester shouted at Chin.
The minister said he sympathized with the concerns and sought their understanding, saying the facilities were chosen as the only ones large enough to accommodate the evacuees.
“South Korean citizens in Wuhan are suffering… So we need to bring them in as soon as possible, right?” he said.
The government wants to isolate evacuees for at least two weeks at the facilities, usually used as training centers for government officials, to rule out any symptoms.
Domestic media broadcast images of protesters grabbing the hair of a health ministry official who visited late on Wednesday, before pushing him and dousing him with water.
Ahead of Thursday’s flights, President Moon Jae-in called for calm and decried “fake news” for having stirred up excessive anxiety.
“The weapons that will protect us from the new coronavirus are not fear and aversion, but trust and cooperation,” he said in a speech in Seoul.
A police cyber safety unit was working with telecoms regulators to block or delete false information that could provoke “social confusion,” Yonhap news agency said.
“I am a mother of a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old,” said Jincheon resident Lee Ji-hyun, who was among a handful of protesters demanding that the quarantine center be located further away from homes and schools.
“I was so worried I sent them to stay with my in-laws.”
Others said they took children out of kindergarten or sent them to relatives in other cities.
“I don’t like my friends who have traveled to Japan or China because they might be carrying the coronavirus,” said Song Ji-hoo, a 6-year-old accompanying his mother to the protest.
He was sad at not being able to play with his friends, who had all been sent to stay with their grandparents, he added.
In his speech, Moon tried to reassure residents, saying only those free of symptoms would be among the initial evacuees and would be placed in isolation.
“The government will be taking air-tight steps to ensure the residents…do not need to be concerned,” he added.
The new strain has an incubation time ranging from one to 14 days and can spread before symptoms show, complicating border screening precautions.
South Korea will give China emergency aid worth $5 million, from masks to protective suits and glasses, the foreign ministry said.
A liaison office operated across the border in North Korea will be closed until the outbreak eases, South Korea’s unification ministry said.
(This story was refiled to remove extraneous ‘s’ in headline)
Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Daewoung Kim in Asan and Jincheon, and Josh Smith, Hyonhee Shin, and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Stephen Coates