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International day of older persons – reflection and reaction needed in the time of the pandemic

Statement
Strasbourg 01/10/2020
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International day of older persons – reflection and reaction needed in the time of the pandemic

The international day of older persons is an opportunity to celebrate older persons, their achievements and their continuing contribution to our societies. This year, we are marking this day in the exceptional context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed serious failings in all the Council of Europe member states. This is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the attitude of our societies towards ageing and older persons. 

It is a fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus disproportionately affects the health of any older person it infects. However, its ravages were also caused by bad health crisis management, including neglect, abuse and lack of preparedness in long-term care facilities, discrimination in access to life-saving treatments, a lack of supportive or palliative care, social isolation of older persons with no measures to mitigate its effects on their mental health, and increased risk of poverty. We have also seen disturbing signs of intergenerational fragmentation, including increased violence and abuse targeting older persons.

These effects were the result of structural failings which were exacerbated, but not created, by the pandemic and which had been neglected over the years despite repeated calls from my Office and other international and national human rights bodies. There can be no more excuses today. All member states must redouble their efforts to combat the isolation of older persons and properly investigate all deaths that occurred in questionable circumstances during the pandemic. They should also embark on overdue social reforms to eliminate the root causes of this tragedy by transitioning to long-term care systems whose core aims should include older persons’ human rights, autonomy and dignity.

Reverting to business as usual is not an option and it is a duty for us all to reckon with the terrible record of this pandemic for older persons. As we do so though it is doubly important for us not to focus solely on the vulnerability of older persons, but also to think about their autonomy, their own views and concerns, and their intrinsic value for our societies. We all have a responsibility to ensure that older persons are heard, listened to and included in the urgently needed national debates about their circumstances.