Older persons rank high amongst groups that are most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only do they face higher threats to their rights to life and health, but preventative and response-related measures further deepen their social isolation, and the chance to exercise their rights and autonomy. This will all continue until their voices are heard, and their views are seriously taken into account.
On 27 May 2020, the Right On initiative held a web chat titled ‘Protecting the rights of older persons during the COVID-19 pandemic’. The discussants for the occasion were Mr Klemen Ponikvar (Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Slovenia to the UN; Co-chair, Group of Friends for Rights of Older Persons), Ms Claudia Mahler (UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons), Ms Bridget Sleap (Senior Rights Policy Advisor, HelpAge International), Ms Nena Georgantzi (Policy Co-ordinator, Human Rights and Non-Discrimination, AGE Platform Europe), Mr Rio Hada (Team Leader, Human Rights and Social and Economic Issues, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)), and Ms Rachel Snow (Chief, Population and Development Branch, UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
The discussion was moderated by Ms Silvia Perel-Levin (Chair of the NGO Committee on Ageing, Geneva, Switzerland) and Mr Alfonso Barragues (Deputy Director, UNFPA).
Human rights and human dignity do not decrease with age
On the topic of priorities related to protecting older persons’ human rights, the discussants agreed that COVID-19 put older persons in the spotlight, as well as the challenges associated with ageing that were present even before the crisis. Given that COVID-19 is not the last health crisis that humanity will ever face, the pandemic has also shown that we cannot act in a reactive mode.
Even though it was underscored that human rights and human dignity do not decrease with older age, we are still facing challenges such as basic protective equipment for older persons and their carers, as well as their access to basic necessities, including water and sanitation. The protection of human rights of older persons should be a top priority on the international agenda, and more efforts are needed in terms of investing into the support of older persons to enable them to lead independent and autonomous lives.
Older persons were left behind
The discussants touched upon the question of a legally-binding instrument for the rights of older persons. While international mechanisms do exist, a comprehensive approach to the protection of their human rights is oftentimes missing from the picture. It was stressed that older persons were left behind during the pandemic and that they encountered many violations of their rights, including the right to life, the right to health, and the right to an adequate standard of living. One of the underlying reasons for these violations is that discrimination of older persons is rarely brought into question. Measures such as age-based confinement were considered ‘normal’, which would not have been the case if age was replaced with gender or race.
The speakers noted that, as we come out of the crisis, it will be important to make certain that such discriminatory practices against older persons do not spread to other aspects, i.e., access to vaccines or social-distancing measures that specifically target older workers.
The response plan for COVID-19
Reflecting on an adequate response plan for the COVID-19 crisis, the speakers noted three important principles: non-discrimination, dignity, and autonomy. Firstly, healthcare providers should treat older people when they experience COVID-19 symptoms, instead of turning them away. Secondly, to prevent discriminatory practices, legislation that prohibits age discrimination should be enacted. While interventions such as the provision of health and care services during the pandemic should uphold dignity, the context itself needs to be reconsidered. Dignity should not equal the protection of older persons, but rather respect their autonomy. Lastly, older persons should have the freedom to make their own decisions, which in turn requires access to information so they can make informed choices with regard to the risks they face.
UN activities on COVID-19
The participants also touched upon the role of the UN in the context of rights of older persons. It was highlighted that the voices of older persons vis-à-vis governments and other stakeholders need to be raised, and that the UN’s convening power can be used to do so. The UN can also help forge partnerships, as was done in Serbia where the collaboration of state institutions and UN bodies, including UN country teams, helped secure the rights of older persons and other risk groups.
Data on older persons
The participants also highlighted the importance of demographic data which can help in the policy- and decision-making processes. Broadly speaking, data and demographics can help understand the scale of the pandemic, the affected localities, as well as the realities older persons face. Considering that there is a lot of variation from country to country regarding the proportion and number of older people, national governments have to identify their own models and approaches in order to have a clear perspective. One of the elements that requires specific attention are living conditions, including whether older persons have access to pipe-water, the Internet, and if they are isolated, and gender. In essence, it is important to ensure that demographic data is available in order to assess the preparedness and response to COVID-19.