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South Korean business owners die by suicide after COVID-19 losses

South Korean business owners die by suicide after COVID-19 losses
A group that represents the self-employed set up a memorial in Seoul for business owners who it says died by suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- At least 22 South Korean small business owners have died by suicide after struggling to stay afloat under COVID-19 distancing regulations, according to a commerce group that established a memorial altar near Seoul's National Assembly building this week.

An umbrella group of business organizations called the National Self-Employee Emergency Response Committee erected the sidewalk memorial Thursday to call attention to the damage that COVID-19 restrictions have had on small businesses.

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The organizers distributed black ribbons as visitors lit incense, bowed and placed flowers on an altar draped in white chrysanthemums.

Jeong In-Seong, executive director of the Korea Billiard Club Association, said that his industry has been hit hard by rules that have required venues to close by 9 p.m. and limit private gatherings to two people in the evenings.

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"So many owners have lost everything because of the COVID-19 regulations," Jeong said Friday as he welcomed visitors to the memorial. "We are here to remember them and to tell the government that it needs to do more to help "

The distancing rules have been slightly relaxed in recent weeks, but Jeong said the losses have been insurmountable to many pool halls, pubs, small restaurants and karaoke singing rooms.

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South Korea's economy as a whole has weathered the pandemic well, with the central bank projecting gross domestic product growth of 4% in 2021 on the back of strong exports. But the country's 7 million self-employed people have suffered the brunt of COVID-19's impact.

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Over 450,000 businesses have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the National Self-Employee Emergency Response Committee, and a growing number of deaths by business owners have been reported in local media.

Three suicides attributed to business troubles took place over the past week, according to local reports, including a bar owner who was several months behind on his rent and the owner of a fried chicken shop who left a note saying he was having economic difficulties.

Almost 40% of small business owners are considering shutting their doors, according to a survey released earlier this month by the Korea Economic Research Institute, with more than 91% saying they would close within a year if conditions didn't improve.

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Nine in 10 respondents said they have seen sales plunge by an average of 26% since more stringent restrictions went into place July 12, when South Korea entered a fourth wave of the pandemic that hasn't abated.

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Samuel Shim, a cafe owner who visited the memorial altar Friday, said that the government has not done enough to help cover the losses that merchants have suffered under the distancing regulations.

"I hope the policymakers pay attention to these deaths and understand why they committed suicide," he said.

Lawmakers have passed several rounds of COVID-19 stimulus funding that has included cash grants to citizens and limited relief packages to business owners, but critics say that the deaths and business closures demonstrate the inadequacy of the response.

At a separate press conference Thursday, civil society groups said that urgent measures, including emergency funds, loan extensions and eviction bans, are needed, and they placed a portion of the blame for the deaths on the government.

"The extreme choices of small and medium-sized business owners and self-employed people who have been pushed to the edge of a cliff due to the prolonged COVID-19 are continuing day after day," a joint statement by the groups said. "Neither the National Assembly nor the government can be free from responsibility for the deaths."

Several politicians have visited the memorial since it was erected, with leading figures from the majority Democratic Party and the main opposition People Power Party paying respects and leaving floral arrangements.

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Center-right politician Ahn Cheol-soo, who heads the minor opposition People Party, stopped by the altar Friday evening and said that the government should focus its distancing policies and relief efforts on where help is most needed.

"The most important thing is to implement a scientific quarantine, rather than the current political quarantine," Ahn told UPI. "The right direction now is to change the form of stimulus packages and provide intensive support to those in need, especially self-employed people."

The government announced Friday that it would begin to distribute $873 million in additional funds to self-employed and small business owners in late October, news agency Yonhap reported.

South Korea is aiming to ease restrictions in November and move toward a policy of living with the virus in the wake of a rapidly expanding vaccination campaign. On Friday, health officials announced that 70% of the population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The memorial altar will remain up until Saturday night, organizers said.

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