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Korea’s ‘Culture of Caregiving’ [Korea Herald]

(Published : Aug 13, 2021 – 05:31)

In response to the surging delta variant of COVID-19 around the world, more countries are requiring proof of vaccination for employment and access to public places. A range of institutions in the US is now requiring employees to get vaccinated. France and Italy require proof of vaccination to enter businesses and public places. These measures have produced vocal resistance, but a strong social consensus has emerged to support them.

Amid the flurry of news about vaccination requirements, I thought back to the days when I lived in a hanok on a winding alley in central Seoul. The pandemic has jumbled my sense of time, so that now seems like a long time ago, but my memories are still fresh and relevant to the ongoing discussions about vaccination in the US.

Old alley neighborhoods are really a collection of micro neighborhoods and inside the micro neighborhoods, each alley has its own atmosphere. Over time, you get to know your neighbors well. You know who works early or late. You know who has children and how many. You know who is retired and lives alone. You know when people visit. And the list goes on.

Over time, alley life taught me about the social welfare system in South Korea. The grandmother who lived at the end of the alley was not the in the greatest health and rarely left the house. Not long after moving in, I heard a young woman visit, but it was obvious that she wasn’t her daughter. Not long after, my next-door neighbor mentioned that someone from the Jongno-gu Office visited periodically to check on the grandmother.

Several years later, the wife of a neighborhood friend had a baby. On a visit to see the baby, my friend’s wife mentioned that she was grateful for the helper sent by the Jongno-gu Office. The helper visited on a regular schedule to help with household chores.

Gradually, I got to know the middle-aged men who volunteered to patrol the alleys each night. Though volunteers, they had official recognition from the local neighborhood government office.

These examples from alley life reflect an emphasis on a “culture of caregiving” in social welfare in Korea. The visitors from the district office check on people in need while the neighbors who patrol the alleys are ready to report problems that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The focus is on help through human contact.

Korea’s culture of caregiving came to the fore early in the pandemic. It helped get test sites up and running quickly, because human contact is needed to administer the test. In April 2020, Korea held a general election for the National Assembly amid high turnout. Numerous helpers at polling places helped maintain lines, clean contact areas, and keep people moving smoothly and safely through.

Critics of social welfare in Korea have long argued that it is not well funded. In a survey of 38 OECD countries in 2019, Korea ranked 37th in percentage of GDP on public social spending. It spent only 11 percent of its GDP on social welfare compared with the OECD average of 20 percent. First-ranking France, by contrast, spends 31 percent of its GDP on social welfare.

A deeper dive into the data shows that Korea spends much less on pensions and income support for working people but ranks higher in spending on health care and other services. At 1.8 percent, its spending on services except health care is higher than in the US, Italy and Spain, all of which have been hard hit by the pandemic. Overall, it ranks 19th in this category.

Low spending on pensions explains much of the high poverty rate among senior citizens in Korea. As the population ages, pressure to spend more on pensions will only grow. As that pressure grows, pressure to reduce spending on caregiving may rise. That would be a mistake, however, because the pandemic has highlighted the culture of caregiving as one of Korea’s most successful endeavors.

As the US and other countries search for ways to increase vaccination rates, they should look at Korea’s culture of caregiving. People firmly against vaccination, for whatever reason, may not be persuadable, but the larger number of vaccine-hesitant people are. They need a supportive, nonjudgmental space to make the decision. The human contact and private conversation that are integral to the culture of caregiving (and to hanok alleys) will help convince many of the vaccine hesitant to get the shot.

Published inWriting