The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is especially dangerous for older persons and has a disproportionately negative impact on their right to health and other human rights. The European countries which put confinement measures into place in their fight against the virus have often asked older persons to self-isolate earlier than the general population and their confinement could potentially last longer.
Confinement measures are absolutely vital and necessary: with distressing reports of hospitals having to institute triage due to the saturation of their intensive care capacity, states must do all they can to slow the progression of the virus and everyone must do their part and uphold solidarity to this end. However, the social distancing necessary to achieve this will undoubtedly aggravate the already burning issue of social isolation of older persons. Indeed, older persons are at higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, as well as social isolation which has a direct impact on their health status, including mental health. This is why they need more support than ever in this crisis situation, and measures taken to cope with the pandemic must take special account of this need. I was pleased to note, for instance, that helping those in a vulnerable situation was recognised as a valid reason to leave one’s home by the French authorities when they put in place the current confinement measures.
All our societies must find novel ways of boosting inter-generational solidarity and social contact with older persons without putting them at risk of infection. I am heartened by many local initiatives and actions by national NGOs to promote such innovative forms of social engagement. For example, the Flemish Older Persons Council has been raising awareness about the situation of older persons and encouraging novel actions, such as virtual meetings or daily telephone calls by volunteers. An initiative in Cornwall, UK, aims at facilitating postcards addressed to older neighbours to offer help to those in self-isolation. While civil society often reacts rapidly and generously in this domain, there is a clear role for European governments to actively promote this type of initiatives and inter-generational responsibility in general.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has also given rise to the proliferation of derogatory remarks and hate speech targeting older persons on social media, which are signs of growing inter-generational resentment. I was shocked, for instance, to see hashtags which are cruel and dehumanising to older people trending on Twitter or by manifestations of similar sentiments documented by the French NGO les Petits Frères des Pauvres. In a time when Europe needs intergenerational solidarity, possibly more than ever, such statements are intolerable and point to European states’ duty to counter this discourse and raise awareness about the danger represented by this attitude.
The current situation also brings to light the failings of large, institutional settings for the long-term care of older persons, where they are confined in close quarters. Even without the threat of a deadly virus, such institutions often generate numerous human rights violations, including abuse and ill-treatment, notably due to the failure to use a human rights-based approach in the design and delivery of long-term care and a chronic lack of resources. This crisis shows that it also puts both residents and care staff at increased risk of infection, as it was clearly demonstrated recently in the State of Washington, USA, and makes drastic isolation measures necessary to protect residents, such as the ones the French government was obliged to take. This situation brings home the urgency with which European states must pursue overdue social care reforms after the current health crisis. A social care system which privileges individualised support to older persons, while promoting their full inclusion in the community, must be at the heart of these reforms.