The Koreas | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s Elderly Face Unique Challenges From COVID-19

Amid South Korea’s struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the elderly face particular challenges — and not just from the disease.

South Korea’s Elderly Face Unique Challenges From COVID-19
Credit: U.S. Army photos by Tanya Im, Jaeyeon Sim

Even before the outbreak of COVID, South Korea’s elderly faced major challenges. Weak social safety nets and an insufficient pension fund have left many people scrambling after retirement. In fact, the proportion of elderly Koreans who live in poverty was 43.8 percent as of 2017 — the highest rate in the OECD. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic closing down businesses, suspending work programs, and forcing people to spend more time indoors and alone (not to mention the fact that the elderly are more vulnerable to the virus itself), these problems are only going to get worse for South Korea’s seniors.

In March, for example, a government program providing jobs for seniors furloughed 83 percent of workers out of safety concerns with the pandemic, leaving 534,000 temporarily out of work. There is a budget set aside to fulfil back pay for those positions once they resume, and some local governments have stepped up to help provide wages for these workers, but some of the most vulnerable could fall through the cracks during this already precarious time. As of May, around 250,000 jobs that could easily implement social distancing procedures were able to restart.

But experts worry that this new contactless world may not be taking into account the unique needs of Korea’s elderly population. The South Korean government has kick-started several programs meant to help boost the shift to digital and contactless industries — but for seniors who may not be as comfortable with digital platforms, these initiatives may just create a larger gap in their ability to access services.

In addition to these direct impacts, the more hidden consequences of COVID-19 will only become clearer as summer gets into full swing. For example, over the last few years, South Korea’s elderly have coped with high temperatures and even higher energy costs by congregating in open public spaces with free air conditioning. Last August, for example, officials estimated that more than 3,000 elderly passengers per day travelled to Incheon Airport using the free subway benefits provided to those over the age of 65. But if the pandemic forces large, public facilities to stay closed or remain at limited capacity for the next few months, these options will be limited for the elderly population who may not be able to afford air conditioning during the peak of the summer heat.

Closing or limiting these types of public spaces can not only have detrimental physical effects for seniors living without air conditioning, but the lack of gathering spaces for social interaction is also a concern for mental health. This is a concern across the board, of course, but South Korea’s elderly population may be particularly vulnerable.

Not only do they often congregate in parks and other public areas that may have limited access right now, they are also already disproportionately affected by mental health issues — in 2018, the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service reported that about 40 percent of the 684,000 Koreans diagnosed with severe depression were over the age of 60. And studies on the issue have also shown that living alone, lack of physical activity, and lack of social activity can exacerbate symptoms — extended social distancing will likely make these factors even more salient.

With these concerns in mind, some companies are finding creative solutions to make sure that South Korea’s seniors are not left alone amidst this time of social isolation. For example, SK Telecom’s Aria AI system supports 24-hour tracking of its 3,200 users, many of them elderly and living alone. In some areas, local social workers help monitor vulnerable seniors, and can get alerts to go check on a user if they haven’t had any activity in a 24-hour period, or if they start making concerning searches online that trigger a red flag.

While Korean society works to get back on track while maintaining vigilance to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19, it will be important to keep the unique concerns and needs of the country’s large, and already vulnerable, elderly population firmly in mind.