south korea elections coronavirus
South Korean Confucian scholar Yoo Bok-Yeob (R) wears plastic gloves amid concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus ahead of casting his ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Nonsan on April 15, 2020. Photo by STR / YONHAP / AFP. 
Coronavirus

Face Masks and Plastic Gloves: South Koreans Come Out to Vote Despite Coronavirus Threat

Koreans lined up a metre away from each other in face masks and plastic gloves to cast their vote during a crucial time in the country's political landscape.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
April 15, 2020, 11:02am

Wearing face masks and lining up one metre away from each other, South Koreans still came out in droves on Wednesday, April 15 to vote in the National Assembly election, despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. In Anyang, a city near Seoul, people stood in line in front of the Anyang Sports Complex to vote for the next members of the legislative body. Some Koreans call this year's polls the "corona-election," as COVID-19-related issues are now the focus, pushing other political and social issues to the sidelines.

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The election is the biggest political event in South Korea this year. Voters practised social distancing by staying behind lines on the floor. Poll workers shouted at people to follow these demarcations to avoid a possible spread of the virus.

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South Koreans wait in line to cast their ballots for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 15, 2020. Photo by STR / YONHAP / AFP.

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Voters wearing face masks and gloves amid concerns over the COVID-19 novel coronavirus queue up to cast their ballots during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 15, 2020. Photo by Ed JONES / AFP.

Voters' body temperatures were taken and they were required to put on hand sanitizer and wear disposable plastic gloves before entering the polling area. They only removed their masks for a few seconds to prove their identity to the poll workers. People threw away their gloves after leaving the voting area, while some took selfies to show on social media that they voted.

The regulations are especially important in South Korea, which once had the most number of coronavirus cases outside China. As of writing, there are 10,591 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. However, South Korea managed to contain the virus through aggressive testing and now has 7,616 recovered patients and 225 deaths. The country has been praised not only for its massive and rapid testing, but also for the government's transparency on the issue. The results of today's elections are important because they will dictate how the country will address the virus in the future.

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South Korean Confucian scholar Yoo Bok-Yeob (2nd L) and his family members wearing traditional dress pose for a selfie after casting their ballots for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Nonsan on April 15, 2020. Photo by STR / YONHAP / AFP.

Despite the strict precautions, even those quarantined were allowed to exercise their democratic right. Out of about 60,000 people in quarantine, 13,642 applied to vote. According to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, these citizens are under strict instructions to only vote at certain times and in designated places. They also should not have coronavirus symptoms, such as fever and a respiratory problem.

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A rubbish bin full of plastic gloves. Photo by Junhyup Kwon.

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Photo by Junhyup Kwon.

Some experts expected fewer people to vote this year but it turned out to be the opposite. The turnout rate this year was recorded at 66.2 percent as of 8 PM KST, already topping the 2016 National Assembly elections' 58 percent. This also marks the highest rate in 28 years.

Twin sisters Kim Jeong-in and Kim Su-in voted at the Anyang Sports Complex and said that they wanted to support candidates despite the danger of infection.

"Although I was worried about the infection, I wanted to vote to prevent another tragedy like the Sewol ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people, most of them high school students, drowned in 2014," Su-in told VICE.

"I wasn't worried that much because I believe I will be able to recover even if I get infected with the virus, because the recovery rate in South Korea is very high," Jeong-in said. According to the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), the country's recovery rate is currently at 71.9 percent.

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However, the sisters said that some voters didn't want to follow the regulations set by the government.

"There was a guy, who looked like he was in his late 50s, who was very uncooperative when it came to wearing plastic gloves," Jeong-in said. "Although he ended up wearing gloves, I think he shouldn't have complained about the gloves since it's for everyone's safety."

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A South Korean woman casts her ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 15, 2020. Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP.

Kim Tae-hyun, 18, voted for the first time this year.

"Although there's the danger of infection, I thought it was meaningful for me to vote since it's my first election. I had only watched elections through TV, but I feel a great deal of responsibility as a citizen in a democratic country," he said. "I wasn't hesitant to come to the polling station because there are preventive measures for the virus."

"People have trust in their safety and the government's preventive measures against the virus, so I think there are very few people who don't vote due to the fear of getting infected," Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, told VICE.

"It's also a very important time for the country, politically, so people want to express their opinions in matters of public concern during these unprecedented times."

The election can change the country's political landscape as President Moon Jae-in's term ends in May 2022. If candidate from the ruling party win a majority of the legislative seats, Moon will likely get more support in the last few years of his term. Based on the latest exit polls, it looks like this will be the case.

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A voter wearing a face mask and gloves amid concerns over the COVID-19 novel coronavirus exits a booth to cast a ballot during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 15, 2020. Photo by Ed JONES / AFP.

Yu Chang-seon, a political analyst, agrees with this.

"People are not afraid of getting infected in the voting areas because of the preventive measures. They also have a strong sense of sovereignty," he said. The analyst thinks the outbreak could even work to the ruling party's advantage.

"The negative publicity over the government has died down since the government's measures against the coronavirus won plaudits," Kang said.

He explained that this could lead to the "rally 'round the flag effect," a surge of popularity for the ruling party as the nation unites behind its leader during an emergency situation.

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