South Koreans head to polls despite global pandemic

Temperature checks on voters, separate booths for those with fevers, special polling stations for the quarantined: South Koreans headed to the polls on Wednesday with a big turnout expected despite the coronavirus threat.

South Korea is the first country with a major virus outbreak to hold a national election since the global pandemic began, and a complex web of safety measures was spun around the ballot, as well as the campaigning that preceded it.

The parliamentary poll vote kicked off at 6 am (2100 GMT Tuesday) with 43.9 million voters eligible to cast their ballots.

All citizens must wear protective masks and undergo temperature checks at the polling station. Those found to have fever will cast their ballots in separate booths to be disinfected after each use.
Voters have also been asked to wear plastic gloves after cleaning their hands with sanitiser at polling stations, and to keep at least one metre (three feet) apart.

“We are now holding an election at a very difficult time amid social distancing campaigns and a contraction of economic activity,” election commission chairman Kwon Soon-il said Tuesday.

“Please go to the polling stations tomorrow and show that you are the owners of this country.”

South Korea was among the first countries to be hit by the virus outside China, where the coronavirus first emerged.

For a time South Korea had the world’s second-largest outbreak, before it was largely brought under control through a widespread testing and a contact-tracing drive.

Those self-quarantining at home will be allowed out to vote in a 100-minute window around the polls’ 6:00 pm close, as long as they do not show virus symptoms.

Special polling stations were set up at eight central quarantine facilities at the weekend to enable residents to vote.

But anyone who is staying at home and has developed symptoms is effectively disenfranchised.

Campaigning has also been affected by the outbreak: instead of the traditional handshakes and distributing of name cards, candidates have been keeping their distance from citizens, bowing and offering an occasional fist bump.

Many have turned to online media such as Youtube and Instagram to connect with voters, while some have even volunteered to disinfect parts of their constituencies.

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