October 1, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the International Day for Older Persons.
This comes at a time when we're witnessing the emergence of Covid-19, a pandemic that has caused great commotion across the globe evidenced by more than 32 million cases and more than 900,000 deaths globally.
Although all age groups are at risk of contracting Covid-19, older persons are at a significantly higher risk, and the United Nations estimates that people over the age of 80 are dying at five times higher than the average rate. We seem to have initially perceived this to be a problem of more developed societies that have older persons in residential care institutions and facilities.
However, evidence suggests that the biggest number of people that have been affected and those that have died from Covid-19 in Uganda, are above the age of 50.
There is no doubt, therefore, that older persons everywhere have been affected by the deadly disease disproportionately to other demographic of the population as majority of them have at least one underlying condition that places them at a higher risk of severe impact from Covid-19.
Older persons are not only more vulnerable to the virus itself, but the lockdown and related recovery measures have and are likely to continue having more fatal consequences to older persons in Uganda and elsewhere.
The failure to protect the rights of older persons in the response to Covid-19 is likely to even cause unnecessary deaths and deterioration for many older persons.
The long periods of isolation have a big negative impact on the physical, mental and cognitive well-being of older persons and worse still impedes access to the urgently needed medical care, food, and other support services.
The already unmet healthcare needs, rampant poverty, discrimination and neglect has been worsened in these Covid-19 times. As majority of older persons depend on hand-outs for survival, these are the first to be affected once people’s businesses go down and incomes reduce.
While it is evident that older persons have been affected disproportionately than other populations, the national responses to Covid-19 have consistently failed to identify older persons as a special group at risk and are responding insufficiently to their needs.
Considering the vulnerability of older persons during the outbreak of pandemics such as Covid-19, and given their prevailing precarious situation, policy and program interventions ought to focus on raising awareness on the social needs of older persons generally and specifically during such times as these.
Programs such as food distribution should prioritize the elderly and give them due attention. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), we only have about 1.7 million older persons in Uganda. We surely cannot fail to provide food to 1.7 million people if we made this a priority.
Respect for and protection of the rights of older persons should be at the forefront of all Covid-19 recovery measures. The government must ensure that the rights of older persons, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health, non-discrimination and social protection are respected and protected at all times.
Indeed, stories have emerged that in hard-hit countries, older persons were denied care in preference to the young ones. In addition, Covid-19 has affected their social security in the fight for life by draining their resources for survival.
Triage protocols must be based on medical need and ethical principles such as fairness and proportionality and not non-medical characteristics such as age and assumed social worth.
Needless to say, older persons are not just victims. They are also responding, they are health workers, carers and among many essential service providers in our society.
So, whereas government efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 are commendable, I appeal to our leaders to institute more rigorous infection prevention and control measures for older persons and prioritise testing for vulnerable populations.
The author is a PhD researcher on aging and disability, Makarere University, Child Health and Development Centre.