South Korea‘s parliamentary elections went ahead Wednesday under the supervision of masked poll workers armed with thermometers and sanitizing spray, highlighting that even as the coronavirus pandemic eases, health precautions will still be needed if countries move forward with plans to scale back social distancing guidelines.
When and how to reopen battered economies has been a matter of intense debate, especially in the United States, where governors have begun sketching out plans to do so in a slow and methodical process to prevent the coronavirus from rebounding. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to see the U.S. reopened for business quickly, though on Tuesday he appeared to back off his claim of absolute authority to determine when that happens.
In Italy, Spain and other places around Europe where infections and deaths have begun stabilizing, the process is already underway, with certain businesses and industries allowed to start back up. In South Korea, authorities resisted calls to postpone Wednesday’s vote and instead drew up a deliberate set of preventive measures to reduce risks of the virus being transmitted.
Tape or stickers marked a meter of social distancing space from nearby streets to ballot booths. Poll workers checked the temperatures of arrivals and whisked anyone with a fever or not wearing a mask to separate areas to vote, sanitizing the facilities after they did. Voters who passed the fever screening got sanitizing gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths to cast their ballots.
The government also mapped out a voting process for citizens quarantined in their homes.
“I was worried about the coronavirus,” Seoul resident Chung Eun-young said. “They checked my temperature and handed me gloves, but it wasn’t as bothersome as I thought it would be.”
South Korea was the second country after China to see its virus cases surge, recording hundreds of new cases each day at the end of February and early March. While it closed schools, it didn’t institute a lockdown. Instead, it put its efforts into an aggressive test-and-quarantine program so far credited for far lower fatality rates than seen in Europe and the U.S.
The U.S. has by far been the hardest-hit country, with more than 26,000 deaths and over 609,000 confirmed infections, according to a Johns Hopkins University’s count. While the crisis is far from over, scenarios predicting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has joined a coalition with his counterparts in Oregon and Washington on how to emerge from the crisis, on Tuesday outlined a set of conditions for lifting restrictions in America’s most populous state. Among other things, he said hospitalizations will have to decline and more testing will have to become available.
And when the state does reopen, he warned, things will not look the same. Waiters will probably be wearing masks and gloves, schools may stagger students’ arrival times to reduce crowding, and large gatherings such as sporting events and concerts are “not in the cards,” he said.
A similar coalition has taken shape in the Northeast, encompassing Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Politicians and public health authorities alike warned that easing restrictions in the U.S. and Europe will have to be accompanied by widespread antibody testing to see who might be immune and ramped-up tracing of infected people’s contacts with others. That could well entail the use of smartphone technology.
Trump had insisted Monday that he has “total” authority over the loosening of restrictions. He seemed to reverse course Tuesday, saying that he would speak with all 50 governors soon to provide guidance on how and when to reopen, but that it would be up to them to determine the right time and manner.
Trump also announced a halt to U.S. payments to the World Health Organization pending a review of its warnings about the coronavirus and China. Trump, whose own response to the virus has been called into question, criticized the WHO for not sounding the alarm sooner. He asserted that the virus could have been contained at its source and lives could have been spared had the U.N. health agency done a better job investigating reports coming out of China.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the U.S. does not yet have the testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the economy.
Any relaxation of social distancing would have to occur on a “rolling” basis, not all at once, he said, reflecting the ways COVID-19 struck different areas at different times.
Fauci also said a vaccine might be possible by mid- to late winter, a slightly more optimistic outlook than his previous estimate of 12 to 18 months. “Please, let me say this caveat: That is assuming that it’s effective. See, that’s the big `if,”’ he said.
Still, there were glimmers of hope, even in New York. Though it reported 778 deaths over the previous 24 hours. fatalities were levelling off, and hospitalizations and the number of new patients put on ventilators were continuing to drop.
Queens social worker Brandy Robinson said deaths would have to come down “for me to feel safe to get back on the train or do anything.”
“It’s very hard to come out of the house at all,” said Robinson. “I just try to keep the faith and hope that this will pass soon.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older people and those with underlying health conditions, it can cause severe symptoms and lead to death.
Worldwide, nearly 2 million confirmed infections have been reported and over 126,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins. The figures understate the true size of the pandemic, because of limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and concealment by some governments.