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[Kwon Bo-ram] Coronavirus and US presidential elections

As the Donald Trump administration entered 2020, much looked like business as usual.

On Feb. 5, Trump was acquitted from impeachment and reemerged with his State of the Union speech claiming a “great American comeback.”

Indeed, unemployment rates were at a historical low and more than millions of new jobs in the manufacturing sector were created in what he called a “blue collar boom.” On foreign policy, the Trump administration had several recent accomplishments.

First, the US signed a “first phase” trade deal with China. Second, the US had eliminated Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’Quds Force. Third, the US signed a conditional peace agreement with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan and partially withdraw US troops.

The one issue that was not bearing enough fruit was the nuclear negotiation with North Korea, though much of the criticism was focused on Kim Jong-un for not keeping his promise of complete denuclearization.

Then over the next months, the novel coronavirus outbreak advanced from China to South Korea, Iran then Italy and the rest of Europe. When the Trump administration began to recognize its dire impact and coordinate a national response, the election process essentially surrendered the spotlight to the coronavirus. This begs the question of how the pandemic will influence the US presidential election in 2020.

Technically, holding campaign rallies and physically casting votes have become hazardous for both candidates and voters such that several states have delayed primaries. Political scientists have sounded the alarm on the importance of holding free, fair, accessible and secure elections that should accelerate the provision of alternative ways for people to cast their vote.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two remaining Democratic candidates, have begun digitally and financially retooling to align with the social distancing campaign. Some speculate that Biden, the moderate, has a better chance of winning the presidency than Sanders, the revolutionist, in a time of crisis. The race is still on. However, given his talent for giving persuasive speeches online, Sanders may have an advantage in reshuffling his campaign under duress.

Ultimately, the question boils down to what the voters will care about when it is time to vote, if at all.

There is no telling how long the current state of emergency will last, but we can see how it could make people afraid to venture out of their homes. What will be critical in November is the ability to mobilize citizens to vote by whatever means each state or district provides. That force will be influenced by what happens on the ground, how President Trump personally deals with the crisis, and how the democratic nominee offers a compelling national and global vision.

If and how the coronavirus will surge in the US is beyond my expertise. But for certain, as President Trump claims to be a “wartime president,” this could help rally supporters against the common threat of the coronavirus.

His attempt to brand the virus as “foreign” is merely a tactic to appeal to his base, which may be frequently invoked by China hawks. The incumbent has the benefit of appearing in White House briefings with credible health care experts, and could use that platform to demonstrate that he is fighting for the American people, the current and future national economy as well as their health. Absent this opportunity, the Democratic Party’s nominee faces a tough task of providing an alternative vision for America while dealing with the pandemic.

Some of the lessons learned from the early response to the coronavirus are as follows.

First, the value of expertise and respect for institutions, global, national, state and local, needs to be recognized. Second, interdependence matters. The trade war with China has hampered with procuring medical supplies needed for the US nationals. Third, sustaining new frontiers for alliance cooperation is necessary and money well spent.

Despite the sluggishness of its early responses, South Korea’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak is commended for preemptive, rigorous testing that has facilitated large-scale testing of the most vulnerable and likely carriers of the virus. On a recent phone call, President Moon promised President Trump that South Korea would share testing kits. While South Korea learned valuable lessons in dealing with healthcare crises during the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak, little is known that it also benefited from regular, jointly held biodefense exercises with the US’ Able Response.

Alliance cooperation on global health developed further such that after the US launched the Global Health Security Agenda in 2014, South Korea hosted the second conference in Seoul the following year. This example should channel new light on a serious discussion on US global leadership and how it can reinforce it by strengthening ties with alliances in nontraditional security areas. The traditional ties that bind can and will help in desperate times. 

South Korean and US officials have failed to strike a deal on defense-cost sharing for stationing US Forces Korea. Nearly 4,000 Korean staff were forced to take unpaid leave beginning April 1. While there is little doubt that the ROK-US alliance is ironclad, a pandemic is the time to reaffirm its virtues, not stress-test it with the livelihoods of the people.


Kwon Bo-ram
Kwon Bo-ram is an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. -- Ed.
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