Older people have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders from around the world have expressed their concern about its effects on older people, communities and society. They have also called for a response that addresses the needs and rights of older people.
António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General highlighted that “our response to COVID-19 must respect the rights and dignity of older people”. He had four main messages when he launched a recent policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 and older people. These were:
"No person, young or older, is expendable. Older people have the same rights to life and death as everyone else. Difficult decisions around life-saving medical care must respect the human rights and dignity of all.
We need improved social support and smarter efforts to reach older people.
All social, economic and humanitarian responses must take the needs of older people fully into account, particularly women who are more likely to live in poverty and without access to healthcare in older age.
Let's not treat older people as invisible or powerless. Their voices and leadership count."
"To get through this pandemic together," António Guterres said, "we need a surge in global and national solidarity and the contributions of all members of society, including older people".
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director-General, in a press briefing emphasized how:
"Older people carry the collective wisdom of our societies. They are valued and valuable members of our families and communities. But they are at higher risk of the more serious complications of COVID-19. We are listening to older people and those who work with and for them, to identify how best we can support them. We need to work together to protect older people from the virus, and to ensure their needs are being met – for food, fuel, prescription medication and human interaction. Physical distance doesn’t mean social distance. We all need to check in regularly on older parents, neighbours, friends or relatives who live alone or in care homes in whatever way is possible, so they know how much they are loved and valued."
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, spoke out about the need to ensure older people are not left behind in our response to COVID-19:
“Older adults are at a significantly increased risk of severe disease following infection from COVID-19. This is an important observation for the European Region: of the top 30 countries with the largest percentage of older people, all but one (Japan) are our Member States in Europe. The countries most affected by the pandemic are among them … Supporting and protecting older people living alone in the community is everyone’s business ... I am reminding governments and authorities that all communities must be supported to deliver interventions to ensure older people have what they need. All older people should be treated with respect and dignity during these times. Remember, we leave no one behind.”
Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte (Chile): Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, stated her concerns that the pandemic has silenced older people’s voices and revealed the high levels of ageism in societies.
“Older persons have become highly visible in the COVID-19 outbreak but their voices, opinions and concerns have not been heard. Instead, the deep-rooted ageism in our societies has become even more apparent. We have seen this in some cruel and dehumanizing language on social media and in the exclusive emphasis on older persons' vulnerability ignoring their autonomy.”
She spoke of the unacceptability of:
“… Reports of abandoned older persons in care homes or of dead corpses found in nursing homes. Reinforcing that we all have the obligation to exercise solidarity and protect older persons from such harm."
Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte also expressed deep concern that:
“… decisions around the allocation of scarce medical resources such as ventilators in intensive care units may be made solely on the basis of age, denying older persons their right to health and life on an equal basis with others. Triage protocols must be developed and followed to ensure such decisions are made on the basis of medical needs, the best scientific evidence available and not on non-medical criteria such as age or disability.”
Dr David Nabarro, Special Envoy of the WHO Director-General on COVID-19, highlighted the importance of civil society in the response to COVID-19:
“Civil society plays an important collective role to maintain the narrative that every life matters. I am keen to encourage everybody to reinvigorate existing community networks, to maintain connections even if physical distancing measures are in place, and to promote social cohesion and the inclusion of older people. Their lives should not be some sort of collateral damage.”
In his commentary he went on to say that:
“Policy discourse on healthy ageing will need to take into account the post-pandemic reality and we will need to be sure that the interests of older people are taken into account in all decisions.”
Further details from these leaders on COVID-19 and older people are available below:
Read the World Health Organization Director-General Press Briefing on COVID-19 (25 March 2020)
Listen to the WHO Regional Director for Europe speaking at theEurope Regional Office meeting for Ambassadors on COVID-19 (31 March 2020), with accompanying press briefing (2 April 2020) and statement
Read the full statement of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons (27 March 2020)
Read the working document for the Human Rights Council: Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights in the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures (SP):United Nations Special Procedures and COVID-19 Working Document covering information as of 28 April 2020