Older persons have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Europe, over 95% of the deaths from COVID-19 in the region occurred among people older than 60 years, with over half of these deaths being among people aged 80 years or older. Approximately half of all COVID-19 fatalities in Europe occurred in care homes for older persons.
Even though early in the pandemic older persons were identified by the WHO as being at particular risk , many governments felt that the COVID-19 pandemic was less worthy of their best efforts to contain it, precisely because it was primarily affecting older persons. And when the real magnitude of the pandemic became apparent, older persons and in particular residential care settings, were not prioritized in response measures. This resulted in the neglect and abuse of several fundamental rights of older persons, their right to life, to health, to family life, to work and participation, among others. As mentioned by the WHO Director for the European Region, ‘this pandemic has shone a spotlight on the overlooked and undervalued corners of our society’. It has exposed in tragic ways how ageism is embedded in our culture, our communities, institutions, policies and ultimately in our collective response to crises, such as COVID-19.
Some rights conveyed by the ECHR allow for derogations in case of emergency for reasons of public health interest. But measures must be in accordance with law; limited in time; necessary and proportionate and non-discriminatory. However, the reality is that these requirements have been met at different extents by different countries and several of the measures taken have deprioritized, discriminated and excluded older persons.
When resources were scarce, older people have been denied access to intensive treatment, such as ICU and ventilators simply on account of their age. Whereas some older persons will have comorbidities that impact their chance of surviving intensive medical intervention, age alone should never be a criterion for medical triage. Race and sex also create additional risk factors for COVID-19 patients, yet as society we would be shocked if for instance treatment was denied to men, who make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths. Everyone, without exception, has the right to life-saving interventions.
Age criteria have also been largely used to introduce or extend confinement . Such measures lump together people with very diverse capacities and needs and reinforce stereotypical images of older persons as frail, a burden and unable to contribute to society. They could also have a detrimental impact on older people’s mental and physical health and their rights to family life, to work and participate in society. Importantly, in their majority they have been imposed without any consultation, since according to the Fundamental Rights Agency, only three EU countries engaged with representatives of older persons regarding such measures.
Older persons in congregated care settings were also victims of discrimination. In some cases, testing in care homes was not foreseen, whereas in others, appropriate care including transfer to hospital was denied. During the outbreak, reports have been made of residents being locked in their room in an effort to protect them from the virus, others have been abandoned and neglected. In many countries, a strict ‘no visitor policy’ has been implemented for all residential care facilities for several weeks or months. The emotional stress caused by such policies can lead to mental and physical decline, as cases of depression or refusal to eat have been noted.
The pandemic has also highlighted theinvisibility of older persons in public data analysis. Without adequate, reliable, age-disaggregated data it is difficult clearly assess the impact of measures and eventually discriminatory patterns of our response to the pandemic.
Age equality is a general principle of EU law. Age counts among the non-discrimination grounds that the EU is equipped and mandated to fight based on its treaties. Ageism is the most widespread form of discrimination across the EU, yet it is not considered as equally severe and important as other forms of discrimination. It is the only form of inequality that is widely accepted as normal, legitimate or even necessary.
National laws often fail to detect and challenge discriminatory practices, such as age limits in welfare payments aimed to cover for unemployment or loss of income due to the pandemic. At European level we still lack a piece of law prohibiting age discrimination beyond the field of employment. At international level there is no specific legal instrument dedicated to fighting age discrimination and no obligation to eliminate age stereotypes, to the same extent as race, gender or disability.
Our laws suffer from the same biases that we as society collectively face, experience and accept. If we tend to normalize, accept and trivialize the tragic cases of neglect and discrimination toward older persons that were exposed during the pandemic, equality law will also be ill equipped to address these violations, provide remedies and ensure that they do not happen again.
The UN Secretary General suggested that COVID 19 is a reminder of the stark need to improve our legal frameworks to ensure better protection of our rights when we are older, in times of pandemic and beyond.
In the aftermath of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic we need to look at how decisions were made, we need to draw lessons, and to ensure that in future crises, rights are equally respected regardless of age.
Where need be, adequate support services might need to be set in and effectively implemented to ensure the attainment of de facto equality for people in need of health or social care. By all means, an intersectional approach will be necessary to reflect the diversity of the older population and the multiple forms of discrimination faced by groups such as older women, older Roma people, older LGBTI people and older persons with disabilities. Equality and non-discrimination must be the tools that drive new policies and laws that will get us through the recovery.
Equality bodies have a key role to ensure equality in practice. They should be equipped with the necessary powers (e.g. litigation powers, investigations, sanctions) and secure sufficient resources to address — in partnership with organizations representing older persons — the pre-existing attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that perpetuate age discrimination. Only then can people at all ages be enabled to meaningfully participate in society and in decisions that affect them.
As devastating as the effect of COVID-19 on older persons has been, it’s also a window of opportunity to change how we address ageism and compounding inequalities in later life. As the UN commemorates the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons on October 1st 2020, let’s all take action to expose and fight ageism together.
AGE Platform Europe (AGE) is the largest European network of associations representing and working with older persons. Our mission is to give a voice to older people in EU policymaking and to advocate for equal rights in older age.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.