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Coronavirus adds to stress as young Koreans sit for biggest exams of lives

Applicants disinfect their hands before entering the test venue on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Applicants disinfect their hands before entering the test venue on Saturday. (Yonhap)

Some 192,000 Koreans sat for civil service examinations Saturday, marking the largest turnout for a recruitment exam since the spread of the novel coronavirus began here.

The mostly young applicants who showed up did so as fresh outbreaks have gripped the country in the weeks leading up to the exam, stirring fears of another wave.

The tests, originally scheduled for late February, had been put off indefinitely, when the alert status for the coronavirus crisis was raised to its highest level. The virus is still raging after subsiding briefly, but postponing the exams further was unthinkable for many who had already spent a year, or often longer, preparing.

One of them is a 27-year-old college graduate surnamed Ryu, who was among the myriad of test-takers who turned out Saturday.

Ryu, who has taken the test three consecutive years, said waiting for the rearranged exam schedule “felt like a trial.”

“I knew the likelihood of the test being called off altogether was very low, since there would be a huge backlash from a lot of people who are counting on it happening,” she said. “But still, everything that’s going on is so unprecedented and it was crushing for me to think years of work may go to waste.”

A 26-year-old surnamed Park said the talks of a second big wave in the fall made her fret over another delay, or worse yet, a cancellation of the entire process.

Park, who will be sitting the Sept. 26 exam for grade seven civil servants, said she believed not holding the tests would “only serve to exacerbate the employment crisis,” as “young jobseekers are already suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.”

In Korea, anyone aspiring to work in the public sector must go through the multistage assessment scheme spanning several months, with only a few ultimately succeeding.

Passing the admission tests -- “gosi” in Korean -- for higher-ranking positions is a celebrated feat, but even low-level positions are becoming increasingly competitive. Last year, the ratio of applicants to available openings was 39.2-to-1 for the lowest grade nine spots.

Although the civil service may not pay as well as some jobs in the private sector, the promise of stable wages and permanent tenure in a sluggish economy is enough to lure hundreds of thousands of applicants each year, despite the odds.

Organizing the tests, the Ministry of Personnel Management and the Interior and Safety Ministry have put forth a set of safety guidelines intended to prevent transmission risks, such as making face masks mandatory for all those present, providing separate spaces for people with symptoms and limiting the number of examinees per room to 20 or less.

Ryu said to get used to breathing in a KF94 respirator, she has been wearing them while studying over the past months.

“I wanted to eliminate all risk factors that may interfere with my performance,” she said.

Contracting the disease is dreadful, but missing the once-a-year opportunity even more so, according to a 26-year-old whose last name is Yoo.

May 16 was Yoo’s fourth try on the gosi, and making her way through the whole affair in a pandemic was “like none other” she has experienced, she said.

“The library in my neighborhood closed due to the coronavirus, and my university said it wasn’t opening for the whole term. So that left me wandering for a place to study.”

When a library in Busan was identified as a site of infection in March, she said that she was anxious with the thought of falling sick as she had also been frequenting a private study lounge.

“But I think I was more scared of being robbed of the chance to take the exam if I came down with the disease, rather than catching the virus itself,” she said.

Asked if the ministry’s novel coronavirus precautions made her feel safe, she said while it seemed “they did all they could,” the measures weren’t properly followed in practice.

“For instance, the desks weren’t 1.5 meters apart from one another like they were supposed to be. During lunch, people had to take their masks off and restrooms were crowded with hardly any distancing going on,” she said.

“Still, I felt like everyone was being extremely cautious and it would be sad if somebody got sick taking the test. All they did was try to get hired.”

Lasting roughly 10 hours, all on the same day, the exams are considered almost like a ritual, and the coronavirus is an upsetting disruption.

Ahead of and after the tests, a Daum online community of over 163,500 former and prospective test-takers was flooded with posts conveying resolutions and concerns.

“I made it a goal for myself to not go out or meet anyone until I complete the exams. I know passing the exams will make it all worth it, and I don’t want to be ‘the spreader’ and ruin a whole year for someone,” one post read.

Another said, “If the proportion of asymptomatic cases is so high, I wonder if screening based on body temperature alone is effective.”

A ministry official told The Korea Herald that there has been no known case linked to the exams so far.

Moving the testing online is not a generally welcomed proposition, however.

Kim Sung-yun, 21, a gosi first-timer who sat the exams on May 16, said having symptomatic and quarantined individuals sit the tests separately sparked worries of cheating.

“The proctors could be more lenient if the tests are not administered in a designated location where there is proper monitoring,” she said.

Similar issues would arise if the tests were moved online, she said, not to mention the possibilities of technical glitches and other oversights.

The handful of 20-somethings prepping for gosi she knew from her study group have led “tremendously sedentary and solitary” daily routines, abiding strictly by social distancing lest they ruin their or others’ chance at the exams, she said.

“There are literally thousands of young people whose futures depend on these tests. I think the state administrators have the responsibility to make the experience as safe and fair as possible.”

By Kim Arin (