Residents and staff in one of the Emmaus’ group homes. - Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill
For the first 18 months of COVID-19, both South Korea and Hong Kong did so well managing the spread of the virus that they were regarded as success stories and as examples for the rest of the world. But the number of COVID cases shot up in both countries during the second year of the pandemic. Prior to the presidential elections, the Korean government relaxed social distancing, prompting criticism that it was a political move to secure votes. The net result was the spread of the highly contagious Omicron COVID variant.
Because of the spread of this highly transmissible Omicron variant, the city office here in Kwangju ordered that our Emmaus Centres for the intellectually disabled be closed. That meant our disabled people had to be cared for in their family homes all day and every day. This was very difficult in families where both parents worked. It meant that one parent had to stay at home to care for their disabled child. On top of that, our severely disabled people were easily disturbed by this situation. Being confined to an apartment all day was very frustrating for them and very challenging for their carers. One poor mother was so stressed caring 24/7 for her 25-year-old severely disabled son that she made the tragic decision to end both their lives!
The intellectually disabled have no comprehension of the dangers of the virus. They could not understand the need for social distancing, the need for wearing masks, or the need for frequent washing of hands and so on. Carers needed to learn new skills and techniques to help them become aware of all those demands.
Apart from these Centres for daytime clients, Emmaus operates residential services for 60 people in fifteen group homes. In normal times, in the evenings the residents would be going to the bowling alley or to the karaoke hall, visiting the health club or shopping at the local supermarket. But now, because of the virus, these activities were curtailed.
Emmaus residents and staff placing flower seedlings into pots. - Photo: Fr Noel O'Neill
However, thanks to our Columban benefactors, we were able to overcome these setbacks and restrictions by employing professional instructors to run art and craft programmes in our group homes. The residents updated their photo albums, reliving the thrill of riding the bus to the peak of the second highest mountain in Korea. They also renewed their sadness as they looked once again at the photos of Myeong Sek’s Requiem Mass.
Myeong Sek was a tiny, fragile woman who could not read or write and had no concept of time or money but was always smiling and was loved by all. Everyone referred to her as Onnee or ‘big sister’.
Four men with intellectual disabilities live in a group home next door to me. None of them can hear or speak. For twenty to thirty years, they suffered physical and sexual abuse while living in a large notorious institution which was closed down by the government after the media exposed its hidden crimes. It was a tonic for me to drop by during the pandemic and join them in indoor mini-bowling or potting flower seedlings.
Throughout the pandemic, we insisted that the people living in our group homes refrain from going to the parish church where they would be so vulnerable to the virus. We arranged for them to watch Sunday Mass on TV instead.
There are four very fervent middle-aged women with Down’s Syndrome living in one of our group homes. I am sure Jesus smiled when He saw them go to the front of the TV and put out their hands to receive the host when the priest was distributing Holy Communion. Perhaps it was the same kind of smile he gave the two Emmaus disciples who recognised Him in the breaking of bread!
Apart from these Centres for daytime clients, Emmaus operates residential services for 60 people in fifteen group homes.
Columban Fr Noel O’Neill lives and works in South Korea.
Listen to "Emmaus Centres for the disabled during Covid"
- Read more from The Far East - March/April 2023