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After 2 Years of Covid, We’re Still Failing Older People

A Life of Dignity and Respect for Rights Should be a Priority

Victor Tripiana, 86, reaches out to touch the hand of his daughter-in-law, Silvia Fernandez Sotto, separated by a plastic sheet to prevent the spread of Covid-19, at the Reminiscencias residence for the elderly in Tandil, Argentina, on April 4, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

This piece is the second in a series marking the two year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic. Find more of our work documenting the global response to the coronavirus here.

Two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world are still failing to protect the rights of older people. From ageist comments by public figures to persistent staffing shortages and use of chemical restraints in care homes, the protection of older people’s rights has been put under the spotlight like never before -- and comes up lacking.

High death rates of older people have characterized the pandemic. In April 2020 over 95 percent of deaths from Covid-19 in Europe were of people over 60. By February 2022, 93 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in the United States were among people over 50.

Many countries initially tried to curb the spread of the virus by introducing arbitrary and discriminatory age-based measures that restricted older people’s movement. In the Philippines, people over 60 were banned from using public transport. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was a punishable offense for people over 65 and children to leave their homes.

In some countries, including the US and Australia, nursing homes imposed visitor bans that resulted in potential neglect and prolonged isolation. Increases in psychotropic drug prescriptions for older people in nursing homes in the United Kingdom and Canada may have increased risks to people already among those most in danger from the coronavirus itself. At least 32 US states made it harder for nursing home residents or their families to bring lawsuits against companies that run such facilities.

The nongovernmental group HelpAge International estimated that 1.6 to 2.3 million older people would become destitute in sub-Saharan Africa due to economic fallout from the pandemic. Meanwhile, as the digital divide was compounded by lockdowns, some older people faced barriers to accessing services online, including Covid-19 vaccines in the US. Now, as governments shift to “living with Covid,” older people and others at particular risk may feel they have to choose between staying at home or risk contracting the virus.

The question now is whether Covid-19 can serve as a long-overdue wake-up call. A life of dignity, free of fear and want in older age is not a privilege for the few but a right for all. The start of the pandemic’s third year can, and should be, the point at which our collective record on the rights of older people improves.

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