Anti-virus measures implemented by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration have had a positive impact on his approval rating that previously had been in decline for more than a year.
The uptick in Moon’s approval rating could help his Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) win the April 15 parliament elections, yet how to maintain public support at such high levels rests on the Moon administration’s ability to handle COVID-19 and how it will affect the economy.
A recent poll found Moon’s approval rating had reached 52.5 percent, the highest since mid-November 2018, and was mainly driven by the opinion that his government has performed relatively well in combating COVID-19, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
So far, the South Korean government’s performance in containing the outbreak has been remarkable. It seems the recent poll results are an accurate indicator of public opinion.
Seoul was optimistic at the onset of the outbreak, believing what it needed to do was stop imported cases from entering the country. The Blue House was initially unprepared to handle the pandemic. Public opinion at both home and abroad turned pessimistic as COVID-19 continued to spread, which made the South Korean public nervous.
In the subsequent stages, the Moon administration implemented swift and effective measures to fight the outbreak, gaining worldwide praise. Stories on the lessons learned from South Korea’s COVID-19 prevention efforts went viral on social media. One of the most eye-catching steps was its large-scale virus testing capability and intensive contact tracing. The Washington Post on Sunday reported South Korea had conducted more than 394,000 tests, while Japan, whose population is more than double, had only completed 48,000. Large-scale testing capabilities reveal the South Korean government’s responsibility toward its public and how it meets the requirement to prevent and control COVID-19.
Throughout its testing efforts, Seoul applied cutting-edge technology. A polymerase chain reaction test, which is used by many countries, typically takes six hours before the results are available, while the results in South Korea are available with an hour or two.
Early detection, reporting, quarantine, and treatment became possible from massive testing and faster results. It is a lesson Seoul learned from Beijing in expedient virus prevention methods, which is one of the reasons why the country has had such a low COVID-19 mortality rate.
On Monday, media reported that Moon said his administration would grant “emergency disaster relief money” to four-person families with a gross income at or below 70 percent of the total. Each household would be given 1 million won ($820), in a bid to help offset the economic impact of COVID-19.
Yonhap News Agency reported on March 20 that Moon and his wife donated to a charity to help fight COVID-19 nationwide in the hardest-hit regions such as Daegu. Such actions reveal Moon’s concern toward the public, which has added to his growing popularity.
The outbreak has provided Moon an opportunity to gain more support from South Koreans. Without COVID-19, Moon’s poor economic performance would have affected his approval rating negatively, which stood at a record low 39 percent in October. The DPK is expected to win the majority of seats in the upcoming parliament elections because of his performance in handling of the disease.
If Moon’s approval rating can continue on the same path, the DPK could win the 2022 presidential election. But it will hinge on the Moon administration’s governance over the economy following the outbreak. It’s too early to pass judgment. Its solid performance in battling COVID-19 cannot hide an economic slowdown, unemployment surges and a widening wealth gap, which have triggered public discontent.
This year, the global economy will suffer from the impact of COVID-19. Whether Moon’s DPK will win the next presidential election will depend on South Korea’s economic recovery after the outbreak subsides.
The author is director and research fellow of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and chief expert at Northeast Asian Strategic Studies Institute. GLOBAL TIMES