Lonely deaths on rise
Tighter social safety net urgent to protect needy
"The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Seventeenth-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said so in his masterpiece, "Leviathan."
No other words better describe the lives of jobless and homeless men in their 50s and 60s in Korea now. However, there is one more thing here ― most of them die alone and are even buried with nobody to mourn them.
More than 1.5 million Koreans are at risk of what is commonly referred to as "lonely death," accounting for 3 percent of the country's population, a government survey showed last week. People in their 50s made up 33.9 percent of them, followed by those in their 60s accounting for 30.2 percent.
According to a separate report released last year, Korea saw 3,378 lonely deaths in 2021, growing at an average annual rate of 8.8 percent over the past five years. That is more than nine every day. Men outnumbered women by five to one. All this shows that middle-aged or elderly Korean men today, driven out of jobs and homes, are the most vulnerable group.
Koreans dislike the Japanese, but are walking down the same path as their former colonizers a few decades later. In Japan, karoshi (death from overwork) and kodokushi (lonely death) were social problems in the 2000s. Korean equivalents to these now are gwarosa and godoksa. However, Korean patriarchs lose their financial means earlier than their Japanese counterparts, fall into bad habits like drinking, and are driven out of their families or abandon them.
Only two generations ago, Korea was a poor but sympathetic society. It has now become a rich but brutal one where individuals are unhappiest and loneliest worldwide. The highest suicide and depression rates among OECD member nations, the fourth-highest anxiety disorder rate, and the rapidly rising share of one-person households demonstrate that. More and more young people don't marry, bear, or rear children. Korea is a paradise for winners, but a hell for losers. Can this country continue like now for much longer?
There are usual suspects, such as worsening poverty among older adults, rapid demographic change, and a widening welfare gap. All these require fundamental social and economic structural changes, which take time. However, a self-proclaimed developed country should not let its people die alone to be found later due to the stench of decay or in mummified form. There must be a modicum of dignity in life ― and death. Death may be individual, but its process and aftermath should be more communal and humane. It decides whether a society is advanced or not.
Releasing the first survey results on lonely death, the Ministry of Health and Welfare vowed to reduce the number by 20 percent until 2027. It also unveiled some steps to detect high-risk groups early and provide timely support. It was meaningful that the central government took the first step to tackle this issue.
However, the ministry cannot do the job properly as it is overburdened with work concerning medical, pharmaceutical and welfare policies, including pension reform, especially given the ministry's workforce and budget shortages. Experts have called for dividing the ministry into two.
Above all, the matter is rooted in a deeper problem of social isolation. That shows why Korea should follow in the footsteps of the U.K. and Japan, which have introduced a Cabinet portfolio exclusively responsible for loneliness. In the two insular countries, the Minister of Loneliness sees that localities and healthcare facilities provide hospice and other medical and funeral services so that even ill wayfarers do not die alone.
Korea must introduce the Ministry of Loneliness and/or the Ministry of Anxiety responsible for increasing mental health problems, eventually leading to deaths and suicides. Loneliness is related to the crisis of democracy, making people skeptical about its value amid rampant hatred and discrimination against losers. Medical experts also say loneliness equals smoking 15 cigarettes daily, eroding longevity.
However, it seems difficult to expect that from an anachronistic, neo-liberalistic government, which puts economic growth ahead of wellness and competition before coexistence. Koreans must wait four more years, provided they can install a more empathetic government.
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