Bridget Sleap: “What the pandemic has done is expose and exacerbates existing inequalities older people experience”

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  • Older people have been exposed to increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect without access to prevention or support services.
    Older people have been exposed to increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect without access to prevention or support services. Source: Ben Small - HelpAge International.

The senior Rights Policy Advisor of HelpAge talks about how Covid-19 has affected older people and what kind of global response will be necessary in the immediate future.

In your opinion, are older person’s rights being protected during the pandemic?

Measures imposed to contain the virus have had an impact on everyone’s human rights, including older people. But what the pandemic has done is expose and exacerbates existing inequalities older people experience. It has also shown the inadequate protection of their rights. We’re seeing this across every aspect of older people’s lives, from access to information, to participate in society and decision-making and exercising their right to autonomy.

Can we say that they are suffering some kind of discrimination?

Older people, like others, have been subjected to general population lockdowns, but in a number of countries, they’ve also been subjected to far stricter restrictions than other age groups. We’ve found examples of age-based restrictions being considered or implemented in 48 countries around the world, and I’m sure this isn’t a definitive list.

Can you give us some examples?

People over a certain age, e.g. 65 or 70 years old, staying at home, not being able to go to work, shopping malls or restaurants, not being able to use public transport, and not participating in religious activities. This is age discrimination – restrictions on older people’s rights are being imposed on the basis of their age.

As a result, there is some kind of stigmatisation?

We’ve seen a surge in ageism, the negative stereotyping, prejudice and behaviour towards older people. Framing COVID-19 as an ‘older person’s disease’ and singling out one section of the population can also have a significant stigmatising effect. Separating generations may worsen intergenerational-tensions and ageist attitudes, and prevent older people from playing their part, in solidarity with younger generations, to ‘build back better’.

In Kenya older people told us they felt stigmatized in the community while at the same time older members of parliament were being ridiculed and told to go home to their grandchildren by a junior parliamentary whip.

With this background, are their essential services being guaranteed?

General population lockdowns and these age-based measures don’t only restrict older people’s movement. Long periods of isolation also have a harmful effect on older people’s physical, mental and cognitive well-being. They have left many older people unable to access essential services, such as the medical or care and support they need, their pensions, work, food or other means to support them. 

Older people have been exposed to increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect without access to prevention or support services. 

Can you explain us some specific situation?

Violence helplines in India, Jordan and Kyrgyzstan for example, are reporting an increase in calls from older people, predominantly women.

We’ve also heard of instances where older people have been turned away from health centres and refused medical treatment when they present with COVID-19 like systems. In Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp, for example, health workers were too afraid to treat older people with seasonal flu as they thought they had COVID-19.

In some countries, payment of pensions has been suspended or older people are unable to collect them because the banks are closed. In others care and support services have been suspended or reduced, leaving older people without the support they need. An older man in Venezuela said he felt they had been left to die.

What role are online resources playing to relieve this suffering?

A vital part. Many HelpAge programmes and network members are providing counselling and training sessions online.

For instance, SIGI (Solidarity is Global Institute), a partner of HelpAge in Jordan, has been organising online events for older people about rights, health and social protection.

From your point of view, what kind of global response is necessary in the immediate future to protect older people?

The lack of dignity afforded older people, whether in care homes, the community or in their own homes has been truly shocking. What the pandemic has exposed is the need for a fundamental shift in how we understand dignity in older age: away from the current idea of dignity as protection, intervention or care done in the ‘best interest’ of the older person and towards dignity in older age as respect for the older person’s autonomy, independence and human rights.

Human rights are very much part of the solution to rebuilding societies that are dignified, fair and just for everyone, including older people. And for this we need a foundation from which policies can be built and assessed to see if they meet human rights standards. A new international UN convention on the rights of older people would provide that foundation as well as the means with which older people can hold their governments to account. The pandemic has shown exactly what happens when your rights are neither protected in law, nor understood in practice but it’s also an opportunity to change that.

You can find more information about that in our policy document ‘Everyone Matters’.

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