Elderly deserve protection

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Elderly deserve protection

The fire in a chronic care facility for the elderly in Janseong, South Jeolla, that killed 21 and injured eight last month underscored yet again the many problems of our society - poor safety awareness and preparedness, lax compliance with basic rules and oversight and negligence of duty.

The accident received less media and public attention, as it followed the tragic April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry, Korea’s worst-ever maritime calamity that left more than 300 dead and missing.

The fire was put out in 30 minutes, but still the death toll reached 21. The fire caused larger-than-usual damage and loss of life because the private hospital was more of a danger zone than a safe treatment facility, according to police findings.

There were a large number of fatalities not because of flames, but due to toxic smoke. The walls were made of sandwich panels, thin aluminum sheets rather than concrete. The original construction blueprints specified concrete walls, suggesting the hospital owner skimped on materials to cut costs.

Emergency exits that should have been open were kept locked. Firefighters could not enter the structure through emergency steps because the doors were secured with heavy locks.

The fire extinguishers locked inside window cabinets proved to be nothing more than displays.

Strangely, the hospital passed regular fire and safety examinations for the past 30 months. Police are investigating the company that had been commissioned by local authorities to check safety compliance in the hospital on charges of negligence.

Hospital administrators were arrested for keeping fire equipment locked away.

But the punishment of hospital officials should not be the end of this tragedy. Problems involving the elderly in hospitals and care hospitals have been highlighted by the media several times. With a quickly aging population changing the demographic landscape of the country, the number of nursing homes for the elderly doubled in number in the past five years. The Ministry of Health and Welfare estimates there are about 1,200 such institutions.

The government must order extensive supervision and close examination of the standards of nursing facilities for elderly patients across the nation.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 14, Page 30
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