A civil servant and welfare officer deliver food and face masks to an elderly citizen at an apartment in Buk-gu, Gwangju, Feb. 4. (Yonhap)
Homeless people and poor senior citizens are doing without hot meals as soup kitchens shut down and volunteers shun crowds in the aftermath of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed dozens here.
Soup kitchens are desperately waiting for the crisis to wane so they can normalize their service.
The Angel Soup Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that operates 26 centers across the country, shut down its sites Feb. 5.
The decision was made to protect recipients -- low-income senior citizens aged 70 or above, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What was first thought to be a short-term halt became an indefinite shutdown after the number of infections shot up.
The chairs were empty and the lights were dimmed at a branch of the Angel Soup Kitchen in Jongno-gu in Seoul at noon Thursday, a time when the center would normally serve about 320 meals.
Hours later, a center team leader came back after distributing face masks to destitute people in Myeong-dong and near Seoul Station.
“We initially planned to reopen the kitchen today but had to scrap the plan because of the worsening situation of the coronavirus. So we went out to other places to help those in need of face masks,” said the team leader, who refused to disclose her name.
Jongno 3-ga, a neighborhood where thousands of senior citizens gather, is also a place where tiny one-room dwellings called “jjokbang” are concentrated.
In the slum-like area, 549 low-income citizens in their 50s and 60s live in small rooms measuring only 3.3 square meters in area.
Jongno Jjokbang Center head Choi Young-min, who manages the village on behalf of the Seoul city government, said local residents have a stable supply of face masks thanks to donations from conglomerates and the city. The center hands out 200 masks a day.
“The problem is food. If the situation prolongs, more volunteer groups will shun their activities such as food sharing and medical checkups,” Choi said.
Before the outbreak of the virus, a community restaurant jointly operated by jjokbang residents and volunteers offered meals at affordable prices. But it now distributes food outside the restaurant to reduce the risk.
“Luckily no virus case has been confirmed here but one infection could be transmitted as the area is densely populated,” he said.
Kim Hong-il, a 64-year-old jjokbang resident, said he tries to visit older residents with chronic disease every day to see whether they have fever or other symptoms.
“People here, including myself, are anxious and afraid of contracting the virus,” Kim said.
City-run soup kitchen Warm Chaeumteo in Yongsan-gu, which provides three meals a day, seven days a week, was one of only a few food distribution centers that remained open.
Standing in a long queue, people were told by center workers to take precautions before entering -- wear masks, have body temperatures checked, hang necklace-like virus blockers around their necks and use hand sanitizer.
Due to the temporary closure of other soup kitchens, the center is getting an average of 100 more visitors a day, compared with the normal turnout before the outbreak. On Thursday, 964 people came to the site.
“If a recipient tested positive for the virus, the center would have to be closed for two weeks. But until that happens, we will continue our service as they have nowhere else to go for a warm meal,” said Kang Hyun, senior team leader at the center.
The number of volunteers has declined sharply as more people avoid face-to-face interaction with others.
Volunteers from a Christian group called Nanumi Korea, who regularly visit Warm Chaeumteo to help out, served store-bought lunch boxes Thursday. On a typical day, the volunteers would cook rice, side dishes and soup and serve them together on a food tray.
“Some people canceled their voluntary work for today, so we had to buy lunch boxes, which cost more than cooking the food by ourselves. We weren’t able to get enough people together to cook and wash dishes,” said Kim Hye-yeon, one of the volunteers.