The Korea Herald


Why isn’t COVID-19 top priority for S. Korea’s next president?

By Kim Arin

Published : Feb. 21, 2022 - 17:59

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Four main presidential candidates pose for photo ahead of the first televised debate held Feb. 11. From left, the Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung; Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung; People Party’s Ahn Cheol-soo; and People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol. (Yonhap) Four main presidential candidates pose for photo ahead of the first televised debate held Feb. 11. From left, the Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung; Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung; People Party’s Ahn Cheol-soo; and People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol. (Yonhap)
A new president is about to be elected, leading South Korea through the next phase of the pandemic. So why is COVID-19 getting so little attention in the presidential race?

It wasn’t until after a hospital bed shortage induced by the “living with COVID-19” scheme in November that the leading candidates -- the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung and main opposition People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol -- set up dedicated committees for outlining their pandemic response plan.

Minor candidates Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party and Sim Sang-jung of the progressive Justice Party have not been able to put public health or COVID-19 at the center of their respective campaigns, either.

The nonprofit People’s Health Institute called out this apparent neglect in a Jan. 24 statement: “Three months have passed since all of the major parties have nominated their candidates. With the election only about a month away, it’s still hard to make out what each candidate’s views are on pandemic response and health care policy.”

The institute asked, “How are voters supposed to choose a candidate for office without being able to assess where they stand on COVID-19, and how they plan to build back after the crisis?”

Similarly, a health and medical workers’ union said in a Feb. 15 statement, “no concrete policy proposals for reducing COVID-19 threats have come from the would-be presidents, whose top priority should be the health and safety of the public, with the election rhetoric instead mired in salacious controversies and scandals.”

Dr. Choi Hong-jo, a preventive medicine professor at Konyang University, said, “It’s a shame that candidates vying to become the next president haven’t been able to keep their focus on the ongoing public health emergency.”

He pointed out that all of the four aforementioned candidates failed to touch upon the pandemic in the first televised presidential debate on Feb. 3. In the second debate, held Feb. 11, COVID-19 discussions mostly centered on providing financial support for struggling businesses, which he said was a “cursory take on a complex problem.”

On why COVID-19 might not be among the priority issues, Choi said, “Not only in the political sphere, but Korean society as a whole hasn’t had a chance to address the pains and scars from COVID-19.”

“The lack of political attention it’s getting may just be a reflection of the level of public interest in the issue,” he said. “Politicians will talk about it if they think it translates into votes. They don’t because it doesn’t.”

Then why wouldn’t Koreans be more interested? Stoppping public health threats is a “grand agenda that may not feel as pertinent to most voters,” said Oh Chan-ho, a Sogang University sociology researcher. He queried: “Safeguarding public health is no doubt important. But is it something that resonates with ‘everyday Koreans’?”

For instance, he said that while Ahn’s key campaign slogan of strengthening science is surely a goal to aspire for, it is “too abstract and hard to relate to on an individual level.” By contrast, a much more straightforward pledge of building a large shopping mall in a provincial city, made by the main conservative candidate Yoon, held greater appeal.

The public health authorities’ tone has also shifted now that omicron is around. There are talks of the pandemic nearing its end.

Oh said in this context, bringing up COVID-19 measures at all was likely to end up hurting the candidate’s popularity in one way or another. “It’s a killjoy,” he said. “People hate listening to (Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s) Jeong Eun-kyeong and other top public health experts talk about social distancing.”

Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, explained that in an acute crisis, approval ratings of leaders tend to rise. This was also true in the first year of the pandemic in Korea.

“But COVID-19 has become an enduring crisis, waning and escalating time and time again, which may ironically lead to falling public interest,” he said. “It’s gone on for so long, and it’s not always really bad. It gets exhausting for people to sustain a whole lot of attention.”

He added that a lot still depended on the course of the omicron wave, which has yet to peak in Korea.

As the worst surge yet befalls the country, projections abound on its voting implications.

During a Feb. 7 plenary session of the parliamentary committe for health and welfare, Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Kim Sung-joo called on Jeong, the national health protection agency’s commissioner, for more efforts to “stabilize the COVID-19 outbreak so that people vote for our candidate.”

The remarks, which sparked strong protest from the opposition, raises a question: Could how the pandemic situation unfolds work out in any particular party’s favor?

President Moon Jae-in has enjoyed a more or less favorable public view of his pandemic handling, and he had made sure to tout the early success as his administration’s hallmark accomplishment, said Shin of Myongji University. The ruling party’s sweeping victory in the April 2020 parliamentary elections is to some part attributed to this success story.

“This may be about to change,” he said. “With omicron, the government has abandoned its rigorous pandemic control scheme of ‘test, trace and treat,’ letting most people deal with the disease on their own. When people aren’t given care in time and hospitals fill, then it may somewhat serve as a disadvantage for the Democratic Party of Korea.”

Political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon agreed that “the current administration’s inability to contain the spiraling outbreak will probably age poorly on the ruling party and its candidate so close to the election.”

Following the government decision Friday to extend some of the social distancing rules, the Democratic Party of Korea candidate Lee protested, demanding more flexibility for businesses. He then vowed that if elected, he would forgo all restrictions completely from day one.

Rhee said he still didn’t see the government’s COVID-19 performance as a “deciding factor” in the election. Neither party was placing emphasis on COVID-19 so far because it was not a traditionally partisan issue. “There’s no right or left with public health, like there is with national security for example,” he said. “What to do with COVID-19 doesn’t set one candidate apart from another.”

Seo Jung-kun, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyung Hee University, offered a different insight.

“Voters wouldn’t necessarily associate Lee with Moon’s COVID-19 missteps,” he said. “Korea’s single-term presidency prevents same-party candidates from being held accountable for the failures of the preceding administration. The ultimate blame would fall on the outgoing president, not Lee.”

He also pointed out that among Korean voters, dealing with the pandemic seems to have declined as a policy priority. “COVID-19 is no longer a novel event for the general public. At the same time, parties shouldn’t forget that for front-line workers and the most vulnerable people in our society, the pandemic is still far from letting up,” he said.

The disinterest from the presidential candidates was “disheartening,” said Cha Nam-su of the Federation of Micro-enterprises. On either side, the campaign promises on small businesses and entrepreneurs struck as hollow, and most amounted to mere onetime compensations, he said.

Dr. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University Medical Center, said, “The candidates are neglecting to address COVID-19 because people don’t want to hear about it. But leaders should do the right thing, not the popular thing.”

“The next administration has a legacy to uphold. Korea started off well. So let’s finish strong.”

The real reason candidates aren’t talking about COVID-19 in the election race “may boil down to the fact that at this stage, no one really knows how to solve COVID-19,” said Yang Seung-ham, a retired professor of political science and diplomacy at Yonsei University. “Not just Korea, but countries all over are waiting for clearer science on what steps to take next.”

That being said, getting Korea out of the pandemic should rank higher in the minds of presidential candidates, he said. “Just as home prices and the economy are a top voter priority, the virus is still rampant and it affects all of us.”

Public health policy professor Kim Chang-yup of Seoul National University said for leaders everywhere, coming up with an efficient pandemic response is the most urgent task. The presidential election is a “historic opportunity for candidates to lead public conversations proactively, present visions and pitch policy ideas that can enact a better way forward,” he said. “So they should make the most out of this opportunity.”