‘Rights and dignity’ of older people must be respected during COVID-19 and beyond

1 May 2020

The COVID-19 fatality rate for people over 80-years-old, is five times the global average, the UN Secretary-General said on Friday, launching a new policy initiative to address this and many other challenges faced by the elderly, during and after the biggest public health crisis to hit the world in a century.

“Our response to COVID-19 must respect the rights and dignity of older people”, Secretary-General António Guterres said launching the report.

Against the backdrop of age discrimination, autonomy for older people, disparities in social protection and healthcare - as well as a lack of decision-making power - he maintained that for older persons, the crisis is “exacerbating existing human rights protection gaps and socio-economic challenges”.

“We need to stand up now for older person’s rights”, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons Rosa Kornfeld-Matte had said. “Pervasive gerontophobia, the fear of age-related self-degeneration and death, nurtures prejudice against older people, discrimination and ultimately the denial of human rights in older age”.

It’s personal

“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”, the UN chief shared. 

At the same time, he pointed out that older people contribute “immeasurably” to their families and communities – commonly sacrificing their own well-being to care for others, including helping with children and grandchildren: “Our COVID-19 response must be cognizant of all of these matters” and “must respect the rights and dignity of older people.”

Addressing elderly needs  

“No person, young or old, is expendable”, underscored Mr. Guterres.

The impact on health and long-term care services for older persons must recognize and confront the particular challenges they face, including their ability to access medical treatment and care. 

“Older people have the same rights to life and health as everyone else”, spelled out the UN chief. “Difficult decisions around life-saving medical care must respect the human rights and dignity of all”. 

And while physical distancing is crucial, he flagged the need to remember that “we are one community and we all belong to each other”. 

Digital technology must be improved to mitigate movement restrictions that can disrupt essential care, support and social inclusion for older persons.

“That is vital to older people who may face great suffering and isolation under lockdowns and other restrictions”, maintained Mr. Guterres. 

Beyond the pandemic’s immediate health impact, it is putting older people at “greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation”, he said, most likely causing “a particularly devastating impact” on those in developing countries where public health care and social protection services will likely be overwhelmed by the virus. 

Moreover, all social, economic and humanitarian responses must take into consideration the needs of older people, particularly in terms of universal health coverage, pensions, jobs and social protection. 

“The majority of older people are women, who are more likely to enter this period of their lives in poverty and without access to healthcare”, explained the Secretary-General. “Policies must be targeted at meeting their needs”.  

UNDP Georgia/Vladimer Vaishvili
In Georgia, an elderly woman peddles her wares on a sidewalk.

Support the elderly’s response

Older people must not be treated as invisible or powerless but recognized for their diverse experiences and the multiple ways in which they are contributing to overcoming this crisis. 

“Many older people depend on an income and are fully engaged in work, in family life, in teaching and learning, and in looking after others,” he argued.

Their agency, participation and responses to the pandemic must be supported and their knowledge and good practices shared as part of the recovery. 

“Their voices and leadership count”, stressed the UN chief. 

Recovering better together

“To get through this pandemic together, we need a surge in global and national solidarity and the contributions of all members of society, including older people” he asserted. 

This requires appropriate legislation at the national level, a push toward an international convention on the human rights of older persons at the global level, and sustainable investment in health, care and social protection systems that ensure the dignity and right of older persons. 

“As we look to recover better, we will need ambition and vision to build more inclusive, sustainable and age-friendly societies that are fit for the future”, concluded the Secretary-General. 

© Eric Ganz
An elderly man in Turkey shines shoes to support himself.

 

♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

UN chief calls for ‘solidarity, unity and hope’ in battling COVID-19 pandemic

Amidst the destruction of the of COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations chief expressed concern over a lack of “sufficient solidarity” with the world’s developing countries, that need support in responding to the worst economic and social crisis in generations. 

Living apart, ‘we must stand together’ to battle coronavirus pandemic – UN rights chief

The COVID-19 pandemic is a “colossal test of leadership”, the top UN rights official said on Thursday, underscoring the need for “decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, and for all”.