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Respect and protect our elderly as valued citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic

Blog: Our Humanity in Times of Crisis

By Dr. Julitta Onabanjo

We all hope for a long, healthy and happy life. This is captured in the African blessing, “May you reach old age, may you have children, and may you live to see your children’s children.”

Yet experience with the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has shown that while we fear for the lives of our children, and other younger family members due to the coronavirus, most often it is our oldest family members who are at greatest risk. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds across the East and Southern Africa region, the older members of our communities will need our special attention.

Today, 13 per cent of people in the region are more than 60 years old and for them COVID-19 poses a significantly increased risk.

The recent turn of events is particularly tragic, given that ageing in Africa has been a triumph of development. In the past 30 years, the average lifespan in sub-Saharan Africa has increased from just 49 years in 1990 to 61 years in 2015 (UNDESA). However, COVID-19 presents a direct threat to this achievement, not only because of the significant vulnerability of the elderly to the virus, but because the socio-economic impact of the pandemic threatens to undermine our gains.

When we speak of Africa, we usually speak of a youthful continent. The mean age on the continent is 19 years old; however, this figure hides the truth of a changing demographic. In Mauritius, for example, 25 per cent of the population is older than 60 years. Across the region, the number of older people is projected to grow from 64 million in 2015 to 107 million in 2030. With this trend comes the need for more investment in a public sector that is capable of meeting the needs not only of the very young, but also of our growing cohort of elderly people.

Our elderly have served humanity in the past. Recently, a young person said: “The glory of the elderly is their insight into life.” The 70-year-old grandmother of today has seen so much change in our region –  the advent of independence and democracy, development and digital advancement, which today’s 10-year-old girl may take for granted. The elderly have contributed to this progress and, even today, in the current pandemic, they help us with indigenous knowledge of what worked in the past and what did not. Their perspectives matter.

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development urges governments to adopt and plan for a life-cycle approach, understanding that the building blocks of a healthy, productive life begin in early childhood and need to be maintained through investment in critical sectors like health and education. Moreover, longevity is not measured in life years only but in quality of life.

Tewabech Melese, 71, from Hawassa in Ethiopia, shared her observations of how, under the lockdown, many poor older people in her community were struggling to cope, without any resources to buy soap, sanitizers, alcohol and other protective equipment for themselves. They didn’t even have access to medical support to treat their ongoing health conditions.

The current pandemic highlights where we must focus our attention. To respond better to pandemics and health crises, we need to understand the demographic makeup of our populations, and acknowledge that health systems need more support to meet future demands. Globally, the world is ageing, and we must be ready to face this demographic reality in East and Southern Africa.

We can start by ensuring that data systems disaggregate populations in five-year age groups beyond the age of 50 years. There is a research deficit around older people that needs to be corrected. Good gerontology – the study of the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive and biological aspects of ageing – is needed.

The year 2020 heralds the Decade of Action towards achieving Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also the Decade of Healthy Ageing. Neither of these goals can be achieved without taking into account a life-cycle approach in which quality of life for our older men and women is supported by specialized geriatric health professionals in a strengthened public health system.

More efforts are needed to ensure access to medical insurance and quality health services that address the shifting disease profile, as populations age. For example, older persons are more likely to suffer from non-communicable diseases such as prostate cancer in men and breast and cervical cancer in women. Issues such as menopause and healthy sexual behaviours need to be discussed with older people. With advances in anti-retroviral therapies, we have a large cohort of HIV-positive adults who are above 60 years and our health systems need to be geared to meet their needs.

We have learned that while COVID-19 carries the largest risks for the elderly, the transmission is driven primarily by how young people adhere to the need to maintain physical distancing measures and proper hygiene practices. There is a need for solidarity across the generations so that we can offer each other an equal measure of protection, particularly as health systems in the region are challenged.

Finally, governments, policy makers and international development institutions must invest in a range of systems that “flatten the curve” – not just in response to the threat of global pandemics, but also to reduce the socio-economic inequalities that allow some cohorts of humanity to be seen and counted, and others to simply be forgotten.

Older people have handed the mantle of preserving humanity on to the current working generation. As we enjoy the fruits of their labour, it is our duty to repay them by listening to them and looking after their today and their tomorrow.