Respect the Dignity and Rights of Older People

May 4, 2020

By António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing untold fear and suffering for older people across the world. Beyond its immediate health impact, the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation, and it is likely to have a particularly devastating impact on older people in developing countries.

As an older person myself, with responsibility for an even older mother, I am deeply concerned about the pandemic on a personal level, and about its effects on our communities and societies. But there is nothing inevitable about its impact. With the right policies and approaches, we can make an enormous difference and avert the worst outcomes for everyone.

That is the background to a policy brief issued by the United Nations, providing analysis and recommendations to ensure that the response to COVID-19 around the world respects the rights and dignity of older people.

We have four main messages.

First, regardless of the pressures of the current crisis, older people have the same rights to life and health as everyone else. No one, young or old, is expendable.

The fatality rate for older people from the virus is higher overall, and according to the latest estimates, it is five times the global average for those over 80. Around two-thirds of people aged 70 and over have at least one underlying condition, placing them at increased risk of severe impact from COVID-19. Older people may also face age discrimination in decisions on medical care, triage, and life-saving therapies. And even those who do not contract the virus may suffer health impacts because other critical services are being scaled back. In all of this, we can’t lose sight of the fact that in some developing countries, as many as half of older people do not have access to the most basic and essential healthcare.

We can and must deal with these risks in a principled way that is true to our values. Difficult health-care decisions affecting older people must be guided by a commitment to equality, human dignity and the right to health. Authorities of all kinds must pay specific attention to making sure older people receive consistent and continuous care, despite the challenges. The particular risks faced by older people in care homes and other institutions must be monitored and addressed.

Second, while physical distancing is crucial, let’s not forget we are one community and we all need to support each other.

Those who normally receive care at home and in the community — such as women over 80 who are more than twice as likely to live alone as men — risk being disproportionately affected by physical distancing measures. Prolonged periods of isolation could have a serious effect on the mental health of older people, who are less likely to use social media and other digital forms of communication.

There are many inspiring examples of communities coming together to support and connect with older people. Let’s build on these, and let’s find smarter ways to reach older people through digital technology.

Third, all social, economic and humanitarian responses to this crisis must take the needs of older people fully into account.

The number of older people in the global labour market has been increasing over the past three decades. Today, many of these incomes are likely to have disappeared. And while some older people will be able to fall back on pensions and other benefits, some 4 billion people in the world today do not have access to any social protection. That includes 80 percent of people of retirement age who do not receive a pension. And since the majority of older people are women, they are more likely to enter this period of their lives in poverty and without access to healthcare.

I have called for global solidarity to address the socio-economic impacts of this crisis in developing countries and humanitarian crises. I hope countries will urgently respond. And we must ensure the eventual support or stimulus provided meets the needs of older people.

Lastly, let’s not treat older people as invisible or powerless.

Many older people are fully engaged in work, in family life, in teaching and learning, and in looking after others. Across the world today, older people are on the front lines of healthcare workers responding to this crisis. Their voices, their leadership and their contributions count. Captain Tom Moore, who turned 100 this week, has raised nearly $40 million for Britain’s National Health Service.

As we look to recover, we will need to tackle the gaps in legal protection and the investment gaps at national and international levels that leave older people’s rights so vulnerable to abuse even in normal times, and even more so during a global emergency.

Looking forward, we will need the contributions of all members of society, including older people, to build more inclusive, sustainable and age-friendly societies that are fit for the future.

António Guterres is the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations.

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Respect the Dignity and Rights of Older People was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.