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Coronavirus

South Korea imposes jail time for breaking coronavirus quarantine

Legislature also passes travel ban and export controls amid surge in patients

Workers in protective gear sanitize a market in Seoul. South Korea has seen patient numbers skyrocket recently.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea is now threatening prison time for possible coronavirus patients that break quarantine, as the government toughens its approach to curb the rapidly growing outbreak in the country.

South Korea's National Assembly on Wednesday passed legislation to help combat the outbreak. Suspected patients who deliberately break quarantine now face up to a year in prison or up to a 10 million won ($8,200) fine. The government can also restrict exports of masks and disinfectant in case of a shortage at home.

Health authorities are urging individuals who have come within 2 meters of a symptomatic coronavirus patient to stay home for two weeks. The government will provide financial assistance to those who comply, for example, a four-person household would receive about $1,000.

The country has the largest number of patients in the world outside of China, with its tally increasing by 284 to 1,261 on Wednesday. Twelve people have died so far in South Korea, including one Mongolian man.

Wednesday's legislation also allows South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare to request the Justice Ministry to refuse entry to foreign citizens from affected areas. South Korea has banned foreign visitors with travel history in China's Hubei Province, where the outbreak began. But the move was on shaky legal ground, and the government opted to cancel existing visas and stop issuing new ones.

There is a strong push, particularly among conservative parties, to implement a broader ban on all Chinese travelers. There are more than 760,000 petitions on the president's office website asking for the travel ban.

South Korea is facing a surge in cases, largely centered on a secretive megachurch in the city of Daegu. The government is struggling to track the church's 9,000 members, and nearby residents are growing concerned. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has been stationed to the area full-time to help with quarantine efforts. The government expects it will take at least four weeks to stabilize the situation at Daegu.

The coronavirus outbreak could reach its peak in South Korea on March 20 with as many as 10,000 patients, JPMorgan Chase predicted in a Monday report. The Bank of Korea said there is a greater risk of coronavirus slowing real economic growth, which is currently projected to be 2.3% to 2.4% in 2020.

The 2015 outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome infected 186 in South Korea and killed 38. Then-President Park Geun-hye suffered a blow to approval ratings over her administration's delayed response, while the real economic growth rate took a 0.3-point hit due to the outbreak's effect on tourism and consumption.

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