Activists will demand urgent action for a UN convention for the rights of older people at a global UN meeting on ageing today, amid evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has brutally exposed systemic ageism and the dangerous lack of protection of older people's human rights.
HelpAge International and partners around the world will urge UN member states to immediately start drafting the convention which they say could have prevented some of the blatant discrimination and woefully inadequate treatment many older people have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bridget Sleap, Senior Rights Policy Advisor at HelpAge said:
"Discrimination and inequalities facing older people are certainly nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought these issues to the fore like never before. This is why we urgently need a UN convention on the rights of older people and we need to see concrete action being taken right now."
Discrimination, isolation and abuse
The UN Secretary General stated in a May 2020 policy document that the lack of an international legal instrument, alongside inadequate national protection of rights, has resulted in inadequate responses to the pandemic.
Public health measures were brought in at different stages of the pandemic that discriminated on the basis of age; for example, people over the age of 60 were banned from leaving their homes in Jordan, Mexico, and the Philippines.
Samir Anis Al-Shurbaji (69) from Amman in Jordan said:
"A large percentage of those who died suffered psychological distress because of the lockdown... Death by heart attack increased due to loneliness and being distanced from people. They should have considered the psychological well-being of older persons as a priority."
Bridget Sleap added:
"If a convention on the rights of older people had been in place before the pandemic, this age-based discrimination that caused so much psychological distress would have been unlawful.
"We have seen so many examples in the media stereotyping old people as weak and vulnerable and in the worst cases, as expendable and worth sacrificing in order to prioritise the young. This has to stop."
Pitting one generation against another and the isolation of lockdown led to increased instances of abuse against older people. HelpAge staff and network members around the world reported an increase in calls by older persons to violence and abuse helplines and the police.
Unfortunately, violence, abuse and neglect of older people is nothing new. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that one in six older people were subject to abuse. And this is likely to be an underestimate, as according to the WHO, only one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported.
Elijah Mwega (65) head of a HelpAge partner organisation, Karika, in Kenya, said:
Sadly, I see cases of elder abuse every week and it largely goes unreported. Unfortunately, there is no legal framework they can refer to for help. They can report cases to the police but they are often dropped before they can access justice."
In a survey of 133 countries, only 41 have national laws to prevent violence, abuse and neglect of older people that are fully enforced.
Care homes -- older people dying in droves
One of the biggest scandals of COVID-19 was the high number of deaths of older people living in care homes. Older people in care homes died in their droves, and staff were struggling to access the PPE and testing equipment they needed to keep everyone safe.
Unfortunately, this tragedy reflects a long-term neglect of the social care sector, which has long been the poor relation in national budgets. Globally, 13.6 million more formal care workers are needed to provide the care and support that older people need.
Bridget Sleap said:
"A UN convention on the rights of older people would affirm that older people have the right to care and support services so they can live autonomous and independent lives. We want to see better access to a range of care and support services in the community and in older people's homes so that older people can continue to enjoy their right to choose where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others."
In the meantime, HelpAge Italy and a partner in Argentina are working on projects to improve safeguarding practices in care homes in their respective countries so these tragedies will never happen again.
Older people dying of hunger before dying of COVID-19
COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on older people's livelihoods across the globe, especially those who still have to work for a living or are dependent on their children due to no social protection like pensions.
Epiphanie, an older woman from Ruhango district in Rwanda said:
"I'm in the care of many orphan children who I raise. They are hungry and so am I, and I have nothing to give them. On top of that, I have a stomach illness and liver problems; I have no funds to get the proper medicine after the ones I had depleted. A family member who used to support me is currently not working due to COVID-19! How do you think we can survive this pandemic?"
Globally, 32 per cent of people over retirement age do not receive a pension. In most low-income countries, the figure is more than 80 per cent. In Rwanda, it is 94 per cent.
A convention would affirm that everyone has the right to an adequate pension.
Bridget Sleap concluded:
"Older people have had their rights trampled upon for far too long. And the way older people have been treated during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is to fight for these rights.
"A UN convention on the rights of older people is urgently needed so that governments around the world are aware of their human rights obligations and responsibilities towards older people, including implementing laws and policies that would allow older people to live in dignity and with autonomy, as is their right.
"It would hopefully result in an increase in funding from international donors if older people are classed as a priority group for international aid. It would also send a strong message that the neglect and abuse that we've witnessed across the years and intensely in the last 12 months is no longer, and never has been, acceptable.
"Older people are angry and they want to see action. A UN convention has been talked about for long enough. It's time to get out those pens and start drafting."
Notes to Editor:
HelpAge produced a report entitled 'Unequal treatment' bringing together individual voices of their experiences of COVID-19 from the following countries: Argentina, Canada, Dominican Republic, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda and Spain.
The UN Open Ended Working Group meeting takes place in New York every year. Its purpose is to strengthen the protection of older people's rights by reviewing how existing instruments address older people's rights, identify gaps in protection, and explore the feasibility of new instruments. Any member state of the UN can participate in the OEWG.
Each OEWG event focuses on specific rights, for example in 2019 participants talked about the rights to social security and education. In 2020 a discussion on the rights to work and access to justice was postponed due to COVID-19. This meeting will take place in 2021 from 29 March -- 1 April. However, our intel is that the discussion will be more focused on the impact of the pandemic on older people's rights.