The nation suffered a double blow on Thursday night into Friday morning: an explosion on a Taiwan Railways Administration train bound from Hsinchu to Keelung that injured 25 people, and the damage wrought to Taitung and elsewhere as Typhoon Nepartak battered the south, injuring at least 82 people.
While the government’s and the public’s attention focused on those incidents, we must not lose sight of — and interest in — the tragedy in New Taipei City earlier in the week that left six elderly women at the Le Huo Nursing Center (樂活老人長照) dead and 28 other residents injured.
An investigation into the cause of the fire that broke out early on Tuesday morning is under way, and questions have already been raised about the staffing levels of the center, which had seven employees.
Yet a bigger question needs to be addressed, not just for the sake of the victims’ families and the surviving residents, but for the nation as a whole, with its rapidly graying population.
New Taipei City Deputy Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) said the facility had passed fire and safety inspections, including one in April, when it received an “A” rating.
Yet did no one at the local or central government level ever question whether placing a long-term care center catering largely to elderly people, many who require wheelchairs or are bedridden, on the eighth floor of a 10-story building was appropriate?
Even without the risk of a fire, given that the nation is frequently threatened by typhoons and earthquakes, the possibility that an emergency evacuation might be needed should be a key factor when conducting risk assessments on such facilities.
Did the nation learn nothing from the Oct. 23, 2012, blaze on the second floor of the Beimen Sinying branch of Tainan Hospital that killed 12 patients and injured more than 70? While that was a case of arson, the floor housed bedridden patients with chronic diseases, many of whom were hooked up to machines, as well as mentally ill patients. Firefighters blamed the heavy casualties on the patients’ lack of mobility.
Nursing home fires occur the world over and unfortunately there are frequently casualties, even in facilities that are just two or three stories high, despite firefighters’ best efforts.
So why should the risk of casualties be heightened by allowing such facilities on the higher floors of buildings?
The government has been working to improve the nation’s nursing homes for many years. In 2007, the Ministry of the Interior adopted a new set of workforce and equipment standards for nursing homes, public and private, with a five-year period for their introduction. In 2008, the Executive Yuan launched a 10-year program to reorganize and improve the nation’s long-term care system. On May 15 last year, the legislature passed the Long-Term Care Services Act (長期照護服務法) after four years of review, although the law is not expected to take effect until 2018 at the earliest.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has said that building up a long-term care system would be one of her government’s priorities — as is working out a program to fund such care.
According to Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics last year, 16.4 percent of the nation’s senior citizens, or about 470,000 people, require long-term care. Given that this percentage will only increase, everyone should be concerned about the care options and facilities available.
With Taiwan’s population density and high property prices, it is always going to be difficult to find appropriate sites for nursing homes and long-term care centers, especially in urban areas. However, the time when facilities could be plopped down in residential complexes or other high-rises should come to an end. The nation should not have to endure more Le Huo tragedies.
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