South Koreans are heading to the polls today. If you have a fever, you can still participate, but you have to cast your ballot in a special booth. Coronavirus patients have already voted early.
The country is attempting the first major nationwide election since much of the world entered a coronavirus-induced lockdown. South Korea will be setting a few unusual firsts in upcoming weeks, as an example of an economy that has survived the "first wave" of infections. Korea has, for instance, also laid on special flights for executives at its biggest companies to visit overseas facilities.
South Koreans are today electing members of parliament, in a mid-term vote half way through President Moon Jae-in's first term. They do so amid an economy that has seen relatively mild disruption domestically due to the virus. Restaurants, shops and movie theaters remain open, and officials are discussing reopening some schools.
On arrival at the 14,000 polling stations across the country today, citizens must wear a mask, stand 1 meter apart, and have a temperature check. If you post a temperature higher than 99.5F, you're escorted to a special booth to vote. All members of the public must use hand sanitizer and then don plastic gloves when actually casting their ballots.
South Korea has had to work out a way to allow confirmed coronavirus patients to vote. Facilities were set up to cater to some 3,000 coronavirus patients at eight specially disinfected polling stations. Around 900 medical staff in hard-hit areas also voted early at special stations.
On Wednesday, people who are in self-quarantine get to vote after 6 p.m. when the polls have closed to regular voters. Combined with the early voting, turnout was already at 62.6% by 5 p.m., according to the Associated Press, much higher than expected.
South Korean markets are closed on Wednesday for the election. The benchmark Kospi 200 index rose 1.7% on Tuesday, on an up day in Asia. Like most markets worldwide, it has rallied since March 23, and is up 22.6% since then - leaving it looking at a 15.8% loss for the year.
So far, the Korean economy has held up pretty well. Exports fell only 0.2% in March, with shipments to virus-hit China down 5.8% but up 17.3% to the European Union and 10.0% to the United States, before any Covid-19 effect. Korean industrial production is rising year on year, and consumption figures don't look bad.
But the global recession currently developing will certainly hit export-heavy Korea hard, even if its own economy isn't locked down. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday projected the Korean economy would shrink 1.2% in 2020, the first annual decline since 1998 and the Asian financial crisis.
Korea has been arranging special flights for engineers and executives of Korean chaebol conglomerates such as Samsung, LG and and Hyundai, to visit factories in China, Vietnam and eastern Europe. The Korean government has dispatched at least five flights carrying hundreds of staff members since late March, according to the Financial Times, so that Korean businesses could send key employees to critical facilities.
"Our businessmen with overseas plants are in trouble," deputy trade minister Park Ki-young tells the FT. "We have seen more demand for such flights than we expected, so we plan to continue to run these operations until the pandemic is brought under control."
Around 150 countries placed travel restrictions on Korean nationals. The charter flights have been mainly funded by the companies, and some destinations granted special one-off visa approvals for the arrivals.
Korean diplomats have pushed for the creation of a special business visa that, despite travel bans, would allow international travel if executives can prove they are not at risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus. But the diplomats have struggled to gain much headway outside Korea.
The Korean officials have suggested expanding the APEC business travel card, or at least modelling a new Covid card on that system. The APEC card is valid in 18 economies (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), allowing carriers expedited immigration channels on arrival in those destinations. Although the United States is a member of the 21-nation APEC group, neither it nor Canada participate in the visa-card scheme.
Park, the trade minister, said it is hard to get agreement over such a program for fear of showing favoritism to business people, and the risk that people worldwide would assume all business travel is OK.
A group of Asia Pacific nations - Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore - on March 25 issued a joint ministerial statement that they are "committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains." They have agreed to address trade disruptions, particularly for necessities, including medical supplies.
That group has invited "all like-minded countries" to ensure trade continues, and to keep critical infrastructure such as airports and seaports open. But there appears to be no groundswell for collective action on trade or travel from bodies such as the G7 or G20, which have been weakened by the move toward nationalist isolationism in various member nations.
Korea had the earliest major Covid-19 outbreak outside China. A religious sect where close contact was common during services led to an early explosion in infections.
Korea had a very rapid rise from 346 cases on Feb. 21 to 8,000 cases by March 13. Almost two-thirds of those early cases stemmed from the church. But the country has curbed the rapid spread of the coronavirus since then. It has engaged in extremely widespread testing, and aggressive contact tracing of confirmed patients.
As of Tuesday, it had tested 527,438 people, or 1.0% of the total population. That compares with the 315,472 tests run so far in the United States, or 0.1% of the total population.
South Korea currently has a case count of 10,591, which for the past few days has risen by around 30 new cases per day, most of them from abroad. Its rapid response has kept the death toll to 225, or 2.1% of cases. In countries such as Italy, where the health system was temporarily overwhelmed, the death rate is 13.0%.
Korea's early success in combating the virus will now have to be balanced with reinvigorating the economy at a time global demand is slowing. Today's vote has been another sign of progress, but greater challenges lie ahead.