By Ms. Carole Agengo, Dr. Ademola Olajide and Dr. Mohamed A. Sheikh
The writers are the Africa Regional Director for HelpAge International; UNFPA Representative, Kenya; and Director General for National Council for Population and Development (NCPD)
Africa is often referred to as the ‘world’s youngest continent.’ This is certainly true when one compares the median age of Africans, currently 19 years, while Europe’s median age is 43 years and Asia’s 32. This reflects the relatively small proportion of older adults – those aged 60 years and above, in the total population. Africa occupies the unique position of being, concurrently, the demographically youngest continent and the world region with the most rapidly growing number of older people.
The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic with its disproportionate impact on older persons, has heightened the urgency of social protection for the population of older persons.
In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Ministry of Health informed by global statistics were quick to urge Kenyans to limit physical contact to their ageing parents and grandparents for the time being. These measures were implemented in light of figures from WHO which indicated the highest rate of serious illness and mortality for older persons and those with serious underlying health conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes. According to the Centre for Disease Control of the US, 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Ninety five percent of those who have died from COVID-19 in Europe were over 60, and more than half of those were over 80.
Social and economic impacts of COVID on older people
The advice to limit contact to aged kin, together with the general COVID-related restrictions, led to substantial reductions in the support older persons receive from extended family and traditional community support systems. Older persons, as a result, have been left more at risk of increased health complications and isolation, while increasing exposure to abuse and violence due to decreased vigilance from family. Physical distancing has also created barriers for older persons to access regular medical appointments, source of livelihoods and social mechanisms.
The very fact, meanwhile, that the development of COVID 19 responses, did not explicitly consider the potential impacts on older people, exemplifies the age-discrimination inherent in much public and humanitarian programming.
A rights-based approach
While the response to mitigate the spread of the pandemic is laudable, the lack of resources to support immediate and long term social and economic impacts of COVID-19 for vulnerable groups remains a challenge. Glaring gaps in the protection of the rights of older persons may reinforce entrenched inequalities and disadvantages they experience in their daily lives.
To protect the lives, dignity and rights of older people and enable them to continue to play their important role in society, the government and other stakeholders must continue to raise awareness of and tailor information on COVID-19 to all categories of older persons. This includes those living in rural areas, and informal settlements, those who are homeless, refugees or internally displaced and those who live with disability. Communication to reach such groups must employ community structures and local languages to ensure that information about the disease, prevention, protection and treatment measures is fully understood by all.
Governments must now strengthen community services to support health care systems and other social support services to ensure older persons’ dignity and wellbeing. This is best achieved through substantial involvement of ministries and departments responsible for older persons, older people’s organisations and older persons themselves so that expertise, needs and issues of older persons are reflected in COVID-19 response interventions.
Call for Action
There is need to strengthen public laws, policies and programmes to enhance equality. States need to scale up social protection mechanisms with plans to institute universal pension, adapt health services to better respond to the needs of older persons, establish equitable and sustainable long-term care systems, and promote access to decent jobs and microfinance systems. A critical step in this direction, will be for Member states to ratify and implement AU Protocol for the Rights of Older Persons and to support a new convention for the rights of older persons.
Governments’ pursuit of such longer-term responses, in a post-COVID 19 context, must be anchored in a rights-based approach to development, and in the deliberate collection of sufficiently age-, gender and disability- disaggregated data, including data on COVID-19 related trends. The latter will be crucial in building an age-inclusive preparedness for pandemics in the future. It is crucial to understand that older adults are not simply passive recipients of support, but active contributors to families, communities and societies. Older person-focused responses must, therefore, not be seen as philanthropy – but rather as part and parcel of overall national development efforts.