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South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting about coronavirus at a government complex on February 23, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea reported 169 new cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) bringing the total number of infections in the nation to 602.Sujin Kim/Getty Images

As South Korea struggles to contain a snowballing coronavirus outbreak, the President Sunday raised the country’s alert level to the highest in a decade by empowering the government to lockdown cities, bar visitors from China and unilaterally restrict the movement of people.

In raising the alert level, President Moon Jae-in is effectively acknowledging that the virus is threatening to spin out of control, after the number of cases has jumped to 602 in a few days and the death toll has risen to six.

In recent days, the South Korean government has shut daycare centres, banned outdoor rallies and postponed the reopening of schools in early March. Churches are asking congregants to stay home and pray online instead.

But Mr. Moon said South Korea faced a “wholly different situation” after the quickly expanding outbreak of the virus among members of a Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. More than half of all the patients in the country are either members of Shincheonji or their relatives and other contacts.

On Sunday, South Korean officials said they had no immediate plan to bar Chinese visitors or lockdown any cities. But by putting the country on the highest alert, they showed their resolve to take more aggressive steps if needed.

This is the first time since 2009 that the country has been put on the highest alert; at that time, it was battling the swine flu spreading around the world.

The alert, known as Level 4, will allow the government to allocate more money for fighting the virus and make it easier for health officials to acquire the personal data of people suspected of being infected as well as outlaw religious and other gatherings.

Until now, South Korean officials had been reluctant to raise the alert level, worried that such a drastic measure would hurt the country’s already slowing economy as well as undermine its image as a country safe for travel.

South Korea’s economic troubles have deepened in recent weeks, with exports to China, its biggest trading partner, sharply dropping because of the outbreak.

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