Proper measures to prevent lonely deaths

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Proper measures to prevent lonely deaths

The author is a political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The term “lonely death” was coined in Japan in the 1990s during the prolonged recession, or the “lost 20 years.” Among the elderly citizens who suffered from economic hardship and social isolation upon retirement, the number of deaths without anyone knowing increased suddenly. In Japan, about 30,000 people die alone each year. Special cleaning services clean the site of lonely deaths, and insurance companies offer policies for landlords to get compensated for their losses from tenants who died alone. An industrial ecosystem has been created around lonely deaths.

In Korea, there is no clear criteria for statistics on lonely deaths. Generally, deaths of people with no relatives are considered lonely deaths. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of such deaths increased from 580 in 2010 to 1,676 in 2015 and 2,880 in 2020. Last year, there were 3,488 deaths without relatives. It’s an explosive trend.

Services specializing in cleaning up the sites of lonely deaths are increasing in Korea, too. Some companies make videos of gathering their belongings and cleaning, and post it on YouTube. Videos, with titles like “Found in the Closet of the Tiny Studio,” mostly have more than 100,000 views. Hundreds of comments console the deceased, such as “It is a tough world, you did a good job” or “I am heartbroken.”

On Oct. 19, a North Korean defector in her 40s was found dead in a government housing complex in Yangcheon District, Seoul. The contract renewal deadline was approaching, but she could not be contacted. A Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) employee visited the apartment and found the body. She was wearing winter clothes, so the police assume she died last winter. That means no one knew about her death for nearly a year. In 2015, Kim Byung-chan, a gold medalist in weightlifting at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, was found dead alone. It feels like Korea would soon to be a “country of lonely death.”

In Britain, the Minister of Loneliness was first appointed in 2018. The Korean National Assembly also enacted the “Lonely Death Prevention Act” in March 2020. The Ministry of Health and Welfare has started the pilot program of “Prevention and Management of Lonely Death” in nine cities and provinces nationwide, including Seoul and Busan, since August. It is hard to expect a society neglecting even the last moment of life to be sustainable. Proper preventive measures are urgently needed.
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