As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most dangerous challenges the world has faced in our lifetime. It is a human crisis with severe health and economic consequences. That is particularly the case for older persons who face a higher mortality risk, with those over 80 years old dying at five times the average rate. The spread of COVID-19 in care homes and institutions is particularly devastating on older people’s lives and rights, with distressing reports indicating instances of neglect or mistreatment. Yet, beyond the virus’ death toll, older person are detrimentally affected by the health, human rights and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in many different ways.
Across the world, age-based discrimination and a lack of recognition of older persons in government policies, a situation that already prevailed before the pandemic, has exacerbated social stigma and ageism against older persons, who may be perceived as frail or expendable in a context of limited healthcare resources and the growing demand to ease restrictive measures in order to reactivate the economy.
On the other hand, measures to control the spread of the virus such as restrictions on physical interaction and mandatory social distancing can limit older persons’ access to their social networks or put them in a greater state of isolation. This can affect their mental health and also make them more vulnerable to neglect and violence. Older women in particular are often at a heightened risk of social exclusion and abuse due to intersecting discrimination on the grounds of their gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status and civil status. Relatedly, older women lacking economic independence, either because they are/were engaged in unpaid care work and in the informal economy, usually have more limited access to social protection systems and safety nets. This diminishes their resilience and adaptability in periods of socio-economic upheaval.
Incorporating a human rights-based approach in the response to the health and economic crises will emphasise the need to address underlying and structural factors of older persons’ exclusion, including intersecting discrimination. It will contribute to giving a voice to older persons and their organisations in the adoption of measures to mitigate challenges and in finding longer-term solutions. A human rights-based approach emphasises States’ obligations towards older persons such as ensuring access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health without discrimination, protecting the care-givers of dependent older persons – many of whom are themselves older persons, ensuring prevention and a prompt response to violence, and taking measures to ensure access to information and digital technologies through the period of physical distancing.
Prioritising older persons in response to the COVID-19 crisis is not only the right thing to do. It is also a wise investment as it allows communities, health systems and households to tap into the potential and capabilities they can offer. Obviously, some older persons are highly dependent due to their particular health and physical conditions. Ensuring the continuity of adequate care services for them, such as mental health services, palliative care and geriatric care, while respecting their autonomy and voice, must be key pillars of State responses to and recovery from the current pandemic.
Mindful of the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by older persons in the current context, the UN system is taking the lead in bringing a spotlight to older persons and their rights, in collaboration with relevant civil society organisations. Last week the UN Secretary-General issued a comprehensive policy brief on this subject, while the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has repeatedly exercised her global advocacy and protection mandate through public statements and the issuing of specific guidance to States.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has also released a global and regional technical briefs emphasising its role in supporting the world-wide UN COVID-19 response at global and country-levels. Concretely, UNFPA is calling for and has committed to supporting governments to:
- Generate quick demographic data mappings for preparedness and affective response by identifying, based on recent census data, the number of older persons in the relevant country, where they are and under what socioeconomic conditions they live;
- Invest in the rights and health of older persons within the COVID-19 Response and develop effective inter-ministerial coordination mechanisms (e.g. involving ministries of health, and of social protection) to protect older persons and support the continuity of essential services.
- Bring a gender perspective to address the specific challenges faced by older women, who are at a heightened risk of gender-based violence and often enjoy weaker coverage by social protection systems.
- Support older people to remain autonomous and important pillars of their communities via their roles, for example, as caregivers, health workers or community volunteers, through the development of specifically tailored messaging on how to protect themselves in fulfilling such valuable roles.
- Harness inter-generational solidarity and address age-based discrimination by promoting social norm changes in the community and addressing negative attitudes towards older persons, caregivers and health workers – in partnership with an array of organisations including youth and women’s groups and religious and traditional leaders.
While the impacts of the pandemic on the life, health and wellbeing of older persons is putting governments, families and older persons themselves to the test, with the right policies and messages and appropriate measures to empower older persons, this current crisis can be turned into an important opportunity to make older persons more visible, to include their voices in decision-making, and to change social perceptions of older persons as empowered rights-holders rather than a silent dependents.
Alfonso Barragues is Deputy Chief of the UNFPA Office in Geneva
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