How Democracy Won the World's First Coronavirus Election

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SEOUL, South Korea — The most important thing about this country’s legislative elections this week is the fact that they happened at all. They were the world’s first nationwide vote of the coronavirus era, and more than 29 million people — 66 percent of the electorate, the highest turnout in nearly three decades — cast ballots to choose 300 new members for the National Assembly.

Each polling station was equipped with hand sanitizer and disposable gloves; voters, wearing masks and standing far apart, had their temperatures checked at the entrances. No one seemed to feel they had to choose between exercising their democratic rights and protecting their health. As with widespread testing, so, too, with record voter turnout: South Korea is again a beacon in dark times, a model for how an open society can weather the storm of a pandemic.

Who would have predicted this six weeks ago? At the end of February, South Korea held the dubious distinction of having the highest number of Covid-19 cases outside China. Along with Italy and Iran, it was one of the first new hot spot countries, and a harbinger that the epidemic that started in Wuhan was on its way to becoming a global pandemic. I returned to Seoul with my family from an extended stay in Vietnam just as the number of daily infections was starting to spike: The airline we flew canceled all its flights to and from South Korea not long after. For a harrowing spell in late February and early March, South Korea felt like ground zero.

Before the outbreak, President Moon Jae-in and his liberal coalition, the Democratic Party, were in the doldrums. Mr. Moon had to let go of a controversial new justice minister and pull back on unpopular structural reforms, like a pledge to substantially increase the minimum wage. Economic growth was sluggish. Mr. Moon’s signature foreign policy of “peace and denuclearization” diplomacy with North Korea was stuck in gear, paralyzed by the lack of progress in negotiations between Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, and President Trump.

The spike in coronavirus cases in late February amplified the voice of conservative critics, who slammed the government’s decision not to ban all Chinese visitors. People grumbled about how hard it was to buy face masks. Mr. Moon’s approval ratings slipped as South Korea, a country of resilient pessimists, braced for the worst.

At the center of its remarkable ability to flatten the coronavirus curve has been a government strategy of openness and responsiveness to the public. In other words, South Korea has drawn on its strengths as a liberal society to address the public health crisis — and this week its people doubled-down on democracy by turning out in droves to re-elect its leadership.

As is now well known to the world, as early as late January, public health officials greenlighted efforts by the private sector to build up capacity for widespread testing for the coronavirus in case the outbreak got worse. Less well-known is how, as those test results came in, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Public Health and Welfare made sure the information was passed on swiftly and systematically to those who needed it: the general public.

For weeks, my mobile phone buzzed throughout the day, alerting me to any confirmed Covid-19 cases in my neighborhood and delivered useful details like the time at which an infected person had gone to the grocery store. Contact tracing and public data-sharing of the kind just beginning in hard-hit states like Massachusetts has been a standard feature of daily life here.

Period2020 Apr 16

Media coverage

1

Media coverage

  • TitleHow Democracy Won the World's First Coronavirus Election
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletNewYork Times
    Media typeWeb
    CountryUnited States
    Date20/4/16
    DescriptionSEOUL, South Korea — The most important thing about this country’s legislative elections this week is the fact that they happened at all. They were the world’s first nationwide vote of the coronavirus era, and more than 29 million people — 66 percent of the electorate, the highest turnout in nearly three decades — cast ballots to choose 300 new members for the National Assembly.

    Each polling station was equipped with hand sanitizer and disposable gloves; voters, wearing masks and standing far apart, had their temperatures checked at the entrances. No one seemed to feel they had to choose between exercising their democratic rights and protecting their health. As with widespread testing, so, too, with record voter turnout: South Korea is again a beacon in dark times, a model for how an open society can weather the storm of a pandemic.

    Who would have predicted this six weeks ago? At the end of February, South Korea held the dubious distinction of having the highest number of Covid-19 cases outside China. Along with Italy and Iran, it was one of the first new hot spot countries, and a harbinger that the epidemic that started in Wuhan was on its way to becoming a global pandemic. I returned to Seoul with my family from an extended stay in Vietnam just as the number of daily infections was starting to spike: The airline we flew canceled all its flights to and from South Korea not long after. For a harrowing spell in late February and early March, South Korea felt like ground zero.

    Before the outbreak, President Moon Jae-in and his liberal coalition, the Democratic Party, were in the doldrums. Mr. Moon had to let go of a controversial new justice minister and pull back on unpopular structural reforms, like a pledge to substantially increase the minimum wage. Economic growth was sluggish. Mr. Moon’s signature foreign policy of “peace and denuclearization” diplomacy with North Korea was stuck in gear, paralyzed by the lack of progress in negotiations between Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, and President Trump.

    The spike in coronavirus cases in late February amplified the voice of conservative critics, who slammed the government’s decision not to ban all Chinese visitors. People grumbled about how hard it was to buy face masks. Mr. Moon’s approval ratings slipped as South Korea, a country of resilient pessimists, braced for the worst.

    How things have changed since then, in terms of both public health and political fortunes. South Korea is steadily dropping in the rankings of countries worst-hit by the pandemic. Once second only to China (population: about 1.4 billion), South Korea (population: 51.6 million) is now recording fewer total cases than Ireland (population: 4.9 million) and fewer deaths than the state of Colorado (population: 5.7 million).
    At the center of its remarkable ability to flatten the coronavirus curve has been a government strategy of openness and responsiveness to the public. In other words, South Korea has drawn on its strengths as a liberal society to address the public health crisis — and this week its people doubled-down on democracy by turning out in droves to re-elect its leadership.

    As is now well known to the world, as early as late January, public health officials greenlighted efforts by the private sector to build up capacity for widespread testing for the coronavirus in case the outbreak got worse. Less well-known is how, as those test results came in, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Public Health and Welfare made sure the information was passed on swiftly and systematically to those who needed it: the general public.

    For weeks, my mobile phone buzzed throughout the day, alerting me to any confirmed Covid-19 cases in my neighborhood and delivered useful details like the time at which an infected person had gone to the grocery store. Contact tracing and public data-sharing of the kind just beginning in hard-hit states like Massachusetts has been a standard feature of daily life here.
    Producer/AuthorJohn Delury
    URLhttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/opinion/south-korea-election-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
    PersonsJohn Delury

Keywords

  • Democracy
  • CoronaVirus