Unnoticed deaths of poor, disabled in shoebox-sized rooms

Posted on : 2021-08-18 17:27 KST Modified on : 2021-08-18 17:28 KST
S. Korean activists held a joint “public funeral for disabled and poor people” on Tuesday
A joint “public funeral for disabled and poor people” takes place in front of the Seoul Finance Center in Seoul on Tuesday. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)
A joint “public funeral for disabled and poor people” takes place in front of the Seoul Finance Center in Seoul on Tuesday. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)

Park Gyeong-seok, co-representative of the group Solidarity against Disability Discrimination (SADD), delivered a message Tuesday after laying chrysanthemums before a funeral portrait that had no face on it. In place of a face, it showed a black silhouette representing all of the people who have died because of disability and poverty.

“People dying with nobody there beside them, people simply dying without a word — aren’t they human beings too? I’m here to let society know what the cause of these deaths is. The Constitution states that all citizens have the right to pursue dignity, values, and happiness as human beings.”

The Joint Funeral Committee, an organization formed that day with members including SADD and the group Korean People’s Solidarity against Poverty, held a joint “public funeral for disabled and poor people” in front of the Seoul Finance Center in Seoul.

Mourning the deaths that occur among disabled and impoverished people, the committee called for guarantees to help them survive. Due to COVID-19 prevention guidelines, the funeral adopted a format where one person at a time took turns giving a memorial message.

The motivation behind the funeral event was the fact that as the pandemic drags on, more and more people throughout South Korea are tragically losing their lives recently because of poverty.

“Day after day, we see reports on the deaths of disabled and poor people,” the committee said.

“They talk about how there’s a shortage of problem identification and monitoring activities due to COVID-19 and how people can’t be forced to participate in counseling and programs, but these people’s deaths are not matters of ‘problem identification,’ ‘monitoring,’ or ‘programs,’” it added.

On Aug. 8, a man in his 50s was found dead inside a car parked along the side of a road in Seoul. He was learned to have often slept in his car recently due to pandemic-related restrictions on the use of public baths, where people without homes often go to sleep. The man had reportedly been waiting for review results after applying for basic livelihood security benefits.

On July 29, a man in his 30s in Seoul was found dead in the rooftop apartment unit where he lived. He suffered from a rare medical condition and was receiving basic livelihood security benefits due to brain lesions.

According to groups in the committee, deaths such as these among disabled and poor people are “the result of discrimination based on poverty and disability.”

“These are social deaths that occurred due to an overall failure of South Korea’s distribution policies,” they said.

“Every time one of these deaths has occurred, the government has talked big about how it will solve the poverty issue through institutional improvements, yet the tragedies keep happening,” they added, noting that this was “because the ‘institutional improvements’ have never gone any farther than declarations or stopgap measures.”

One of the attendees at the public funeral that day was Kim Jeong-ho, chairperson of the organization Dongja-dong Sarangbang (DSB).

“People with power get splendid funeral ceremonies, yet when the people right there beside us pass away, no one lifts a finger for them. There’s too big a difference when it comes to their funerals,” he said.

“Vulnerable people need to help each other and understand each other’s feelings,” he said.

Choi Yong-gi, president of the Korea Council of Centers for Independent Living, said, “Why must people die alone just because they have a disability or because they are poor?”

“Many people have passed away in rooftop apartments, gosiwon [dormitory-style apartments], and flophouse villages. When I’ve seen the way they die, I’ve been filled with anxiety and dread that I could end up dying the same way,” he said.

The committee called on the administration and the prospective candidates in next year’s presidential election to develop response measures.

“The welfare system has been neglected because of COVID-19, with things like a reduction in heat shelters,” said Park Seung-min, who works with DSB.

“People need the minimal assistance to survive,” he added.

Park Gyeong-seok said the administration “must keep its promises, such as completely abolishing the ‘family support obligation’ standard,” referring to a system that counts the income of a person’s family members when considering eligibility for social security benefits.

“The presidential hopefuls should also reflect on these deaths and present their own pledges,” he added.

The committee plans to keep the memorial open until Thursday. Once the funeral finishes, it has announced plans to submit a list of memorial committee members, condolence messages, and a letter demanding resolution of the inequality issue to the Blue House.

By Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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