The Korea Herald


[Feature] Elderly alienated from virus info

Coronavirus hits the elderly hardest

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : March 5, 2020 - 15:57

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Customers line up to buy face masks at Hanaro Mart’s Changdong outlet in northern Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap) Customers line up to buy face masks at Hanaro Mart’s Changdong outlet in northern Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

Customers were scarce and business was slow at a grocery store in central Seoul on Wednesday, as it has been since the coronavirus outbreak. In one corner, a group appeared unfittingly enthusiastic, surrounding a clerk and bombarding the person with inquiries.

Among them were 80-year-old Kim Hoon (not his real name) and his wife. He said he had come to buy face masks, considered essential here as a precaution against the novel coronavirus.

“We waited in line for two hours,” said the old man at Nonghyup Hanaro Mart in central Seoul. “Young people would buy them online, but we don’t know how to do such a thing on the internet. So we just come here and wait in line.”

It worries him to have to stand so close to so many people, possibly increasing the risk of getting COVID-19. But he has no choice, he said.

“I rarely go outside unless it is to buy masks,” he said.

In what President Moon Jae-in called a “war” against the coronavirus, the elderly appear to be losing out. It is not only the virus that frustrates them -- even though the virus happens to be deadliest in older people -- but the masks, the suspension of welfare programs, the limited access to information and their deepening isolation from the outside world.  

South Korea had 6,088 confirmed coronavirus cases and 41 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.

When the number of coronavirus cases escalated and fears grew stronger, the government limited mask exports to a maximum of 10 percent of total daily production and began to provide masks to the public through platforms such as post offices, Hanaro Mart stores and home shopping channels.

For the younger generation, familiar with using smartphones, it is relatively easy to gain and share information on where and when to buy masks, or shop online.

But people like Kim, older and not internet-savvy, rely on information from TV or newspapers. They go out to places, ask whether masks are available, and form long lines if there is any chance of securing just five or 10 masks.

When Oh Haeng-ja, 75, arrived at Hanaro Mart’s Sajik branch, some 135 masks, the day’s total available at the store, were already reserved for those who had lined up in the morning and waited for hours.

“Someone like me, who is old, cannot wait in line for hours. I could not get a single mask for the past few days. I heard that I could buy masks from post offices, but I could not,” she said.

“I need the masks to go outside and get some exercise because I have diabetes, but I cannot help but stay inside because it is so hard to get masks,” she said. “I feel like my condition is getting worse being stuck at home.”

Times and locations where masks are available vary on a daily basis and can be checked online, but Oh has to make several phone calls or go from door to door to check. She visited a few post offices, but could not get one.  

When The Korea Herald checked with several Hanaro Marts and post offices on Wednesday, each branch had different rules -- masks were available in different quantities and at different times. 

Post offices in Seoul, for example, do not sell masks. Masks are provided at 1,406 branches in smaller cities and counties. In the case of Hanaro Mart, some of its 2,219 branches nationwide keep customers waiting for hours and others give out tickets for those waiting in line so they can come back and buy masks at a certain time. 

Not much is yet known about the newly identified coronavirus, but it appears clear that it is deadliest to senior citizens, who tend to have weaker immune systems due to aging and underlying age-related health conditions, experts say.

The fatality rates for older people were much higher than the 0.6 percent for the general population, the data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. The chances of death from COVID-19 stood at 1.1 percent for those in their 60s, 4.5 percent for those in their 70s and 5.6 percent for those aged 80 or over as of Wednesday at midnight, according to the data.

Of all the country’s COVID-19 cases, people in their 60s or over accounted for 19.3 percent.

Jang Hong-rye, 68, just washes her cotton masks and reuses them, going against the general recommendations of medical professionals.

“My husband went out to buy masks, but they were all out of stock. So I just wash them and wear them again,” said Jang, who lives in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province.

As more and more senior citizens avoid stepping out of their homes to minimize the risks of contracting the virus, a sense of loneliness and disconnection sets in.

Senior community centers and welfare facilities, where senior citizens gather for meals and other social activities, and popular meeting spots for the elderly such as Tapgol Park have been shut down to prevent large gatherings among the elderly. Most of the free meal services run by charity organizations are on hold until further notice.

Bang Young-soon, 84, who has some age-related health problems, watches TV coverage of the coronavirus all day in her apartment in Seoul, since the community center for senior citizens in her neighborhood is closed.

“I just don’t go outside because I heard it is more fatal to the elderly, though being inside all day makes me feel dizzy and lonely,” said Bang, who is saving up a few masks in case she urgently needs to go outside for hospital visits.

Those who cannot stand being alone at home take the risk of getting infected.

“I have nothing to do at home, so I usually hang around in Jongno, but there is almost no one here … no one to have a chat with,” said a man in his 70s near the Jongno 3-ga subway station who only gave his surname, Kim.

 “How would I know where masks are sold? I just went to some pharmacies and supermarkets but they were not available, so I am not wearing one.”