Author(s): Denis McClean

COVID-19: Battling stigma and discrimination against older persons

Older persons must be empowered in the fight against COVID-19
Older persons must be empowered in the fight against COVID-19

GENEVA - There is concern in the world’s most disaster-affected region, Asia-Pacific, about the risk of discrimination and stigma against older persons and any dilution of their needs in response plans as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate.

“We are already seeing a lot of discrimination and stigma building up against older people with certain myths, doubts, biases,” said HelpAge expert, Dr. Prakash Tyagi who pointed out that they are also the group most affected by the pandemic.

He emphasized the importance of empathy and empowering older persons in the pandemic response to avoid unnecessary suffering from lack of food, health care and poverty.

There are 650 million older persons living in the Asia-Pacific region where many low and middle-income countries are struggling to meet both the health and economic needs of vulnerable groups including older persons, persons living with disabilities, women and children.

Traditional ways of working at community level are not possible any more and this is impacting severely on care for older persons especially those living alone dependent on home care and those living in nursing homes.

These concerns were also raised today by Eduardo Klien, Regional Director for Asia Pacific, HelpAge International, when he spoke to a webinar attended by 1,129 participants, hosted by UNDRR’s Bangkok office in collaboration with HelpAge and UNWomen.

The hour-long session, “Leave No One Behind in COVID-19 Prevention, Response and Recovery” was moderated by Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief, UNDRR’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office, who said it was the first in a series and was focused on the early lessons from the pandemic and good practices emerging in the region.

Mr. Klien said that older people should not have to compete with younger people for medical assistance and should not be portrayed as passive recipients of assistance that could lead to disempowering this large segment of the population and lead to harmful decisions and discriminatory practices.

He said the outbreak “caught us all by surprise” as details started to emerge from China and later Iran on sickness and loss of life among older persons and the need to provide them with personal protective equipment. Iran sought guidelines on how to deal with persons who were affected in care homes.

“How can we work, how can we provide continuity to home care programmes, how can we continue supporting home care, the social care and the care at community level for people who are bedridden, disabled, living alone. That was the first challenge,” Mr. Klien said.

HelpAge is now receiving positive reports from countries in the region including Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. They are noticing a surge of solidarity at the community level and one example is that volunteers providing home care now do it on a one-to-one basis to avoid multiple contacts for older persons.

Another example is the Philippines where a partner in the HelpAge Global Network is working to ensure that old age pensions are delivered without recipients having to leave their homes, said Dr. Prakash Tyagi, Founder-Director of the GRAVIS hospital, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.

The GRAVIS hospital is part of the HelpAge Global Network and Dr. Tyagi said the network has been very active in the last three weeks as restrictions on movements and lockdowns spread. In India and Indonesia they are opening their health facilities to create special isolation units for older persons. 

In Pakistan, in rural areas older people’s associations are taking the lead on ensuring that targeted messaging reaches the population through local administrations and the media.

The work is at community level to ensure older people’s active involvement in the response and that community supports and home care continue to be available to older persons along with the encouragement of inter-generational solidarity which is important in avoiding isolation and making sure that older persons’ voices are heard.

In Korea, attention is paid to providing hand sanitizers and face masks to children, pregnant women and older persons in the community and encouraging social distancing, said Dr. Baeg Ju Na, Director General, Citizens’ Health Bureau, Seoul Metropolitan Government, Korea.

Dr. Na said there was a special focus on long-stay hospitals and nursing homes because the most vulnerable people especially older persons live in these facilities.

The importance of continued care mechanisms was emphasized by Japanese expert, Prof. Nahoko Harada, Department of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, University of Miyazaki.

Prof. Harada said disruption of daily routines cause psychological distress and care providers can be a source of infection for older people so preventive hygiene is critically important.

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