A fire led to the deaths of three men this week because of technicalities, government failures and money, but it was not the first time such a tragedy has occurred and probably will not be the last.
A host of questions have been raised in the wake of the blaze at the illegal long-term care facility in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖) — a fire that could have easily occurred in many other cities and towns across Taiwan. Many of those questions involve apportioning blame, and it would be too easy — and ineffective in the long run — to place all the blame on the woman who was operating the unregistered facility.
Yes, she should face charges under the Long-Term Care Services Act (長期照顧服務法) and the Senior Citizens Welfare Act (老人福利法), but what about the failures on the part of the police, Taipei city bureaucrats and contractors, and the families of the men who died?
The Ziyun Borough (紫雲) warden called the city’s 1999 hotline in August and September last year, asking if the facility was legal, which prompted a visit by a health department inspector, the warden and police officers to the address on Sept. 17 last year, which was the appropriate response.
However, as the house was locked and no one responded to the doorbell, the group left after deciding that the police would monitor the building for “suspected illegal behavior,” because, as Taipei Deputy Mayor Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) said on Wednesday, “there appeared to be no imminent danger.”
Yet there was no follow-up, at least not until the handwringing and finger-pointing started after the fire was extinguished on Tuesday afternoon.
There were reports of a building being used as a long-term care facility for disabled people, but finding it locked up and no one responding to the doorbell and knocking, the assumption is made that there is “no imminent threat”?
A neighborhood resident on Tuesday told reporters that Taipei Department of Social Welfare officials had also tried to visit the house, but were refused entry — and once again there appeared to be no follow-up. A year goes by and no one — not the health or social welfare department, not the police or local officials — can be bothered to take more proactive actions? Is there not a database that borough wardens — or the public — can access that lists all the legal short and long-term care facilities in the nation?
If there are reports that a home or building is being used as a care facility and the address is not in the database, that should be enough to warrant a full-scale, thorough investigation.
While no one wants to see Martial Law-era door-battering and raids, health and welfare department officials and police should have the power to force entrance to homes and buildings when lives might be endangered — and a care facility, legal or not, where elderly and/or physically disabled people are living, but no one answers the door, would certainly qualify.
The families of the three men have suffered a loss, but should they not also face legal penalties for placing their relatives in an unlicensed facility, one that by post-fire media descriptions was clearly not capable of providing the kind of care that the three men required?
The financial, medical and, for the family, emotional, costs, of long-term care for the elderly and those mentally or physically challenged can be enormous, and the government, through the Long-term Care 2.0 initiative and changes to the Long-Term Care Services Act has been making progress in this area, but so much more clearly needs to be done if there is still a demand for places such as the Neihu facility and people willing to provide them.
The Taipei Health Department said that from 2007 to 2016, the city imposed NT$2.02 million (US$69,000) in fines on unlicensed facilities, but that clearly was not enough to stop more from opening.
Keeping the sick, disabled or elderly safe takes more than just ticking off the boxes on bureaucratic paperwork or meeting government policy goals.
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