Back to business as unusual: With COVID-19, the Green Paper on Ageing must consider ageism & human rights


Photo by Abi Howard on Unsplash

We are starting into the second half of an exceptional year in all regards. COVID-19 has not faded away over summer and the risks and uncertainties about the virus itself, infection rates, eventual new episodes of confinement and the social and economic toll are still very much present. The events around the virus have shown how pervasive ageist and paternalistic approaches towards older persons still are. AGE has highlighted them in a well-received paper on human rights of older persons and COVID-19.

Paternalistic approaches are often adopted in the name of protection, however the recent experiences have shown that they do not protect: as in some Member States, more than half of the fatalities linked to COVD-19 happened in long-term care facilities. AGE has called for a European inquiry into the shortcomings in long-term care, together with the European Public Service Union and the European Disability Forum. While confinement measures were largely successful in slowing the spread of the virus, the problems of social isolation and loneliness of older persons locked at home, as well as of informal carers coping with reduced services have not been addressed.

Positive, yet incomplete response in the European Semester, recovery fund and long-term EU budget

To mitigate the economic impact and strengthen European solidarity, the European Commission has proposed a historic first: the issue of debt at EU level, a principle adopted after intense discussions during the longest European Council in history.
Now that the technical details of the recovery fund and the next long-term budget for the EU are being worked out, AGE‘s proposals on how to lead the recovery in respect of the principle of Solidarity between Generations should be considered. Over the summer, AGE has looked at how the EU reacted to the pandemic via the European Semester – and found that many deficiencies exposed by the crisis have still not been addressed.

Crucially, long-term care is largely absent from the recommendations of the Commission towards Member States. A U-turn has been operated by the European Commission in the field of health – all Member States have now received recommendations for building resilient health care systems – and social protection. With the triggering of the ‘General Escape Clause‘, EU countries have now the ability to spend as much as they need to face the health and economic crisis. The Commission recommended the extension of social protection to atypical work, to loosen the conditions to access unemployment benefits and called for large public investment. To avoid further abuses of older citizens‘ fundamental rights, a similar U-turn is now needed in long-term care, where there is an absence of quality standards, insufficient investment and a problem of affordability. The reflection on how to do this on EU level has to start now.

Ahead of the Commission President‘s Speech on the State of the EU, our Vice-President Heidrun Mollenkopf will remind in a video message on 15 September, shown in the European Parliament: ‘The pandemic has made it clear that we need communities from the local to the European level where we support each other‘. (Read more on the State of the EU debates here)

Road towards a Green Paper on Ageing

Germany’s Presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2021 coincides with these huge challenges. AGE also has a full programme to raise the voices of older persons in an era of physical distancing and socio-economic uncertainties

On 28-29 September, AGE, together with its member from the German Federal network for Senior Citizens‘ organisations BAGSO and the German Ministry for Families, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth will host a virtual conference: Strengthening Older People’s Rights in Times of Digitalisation– Lessons learned from COVID-19. The conference will be the occasion to discuss the implications of digitalisation and COVID-19 on the autonomy and participation of older persons, and hopefully advance their human rights.
Right before, on 23 September, AGE will co-organise a meeting of the Interest Group on Solidarity between Generations, an informal MEP group that called for Solidarity between Generations in the crisis response.
In a COVID-19 context full of uncertainties, the 30th edition of the International Day of Older Persons, on 1 October, will ask whether pandemics change the way we address age and ageing.

These key events will be important steps to prepare the announced Green Paper on Ageing, which the European Commission announces for 2021. The groundwork has been laid in June by the Commission‘s Report on the impact of demographic change. The Green Paper responds to a long-standing call by AGE for a coordinated EU policy to address the human rights in in older age, maintain and promote solidarity between generations and adapt policies to the needs of an ageing population. COVID-19 has shown how urgent it is to upscale health prevention and promotion, increase the quality and affordability in long-term care, enlarge support for autonomy and independent living, build age-friendly environments, guarantee adequate old-age incomes and fight social exclusion, poverty and isolation.

COVID-19 has also shown how pervasive ageism can cost lives. False assumptions that the disease ‘only‘ hurts older persons have slowed down responses and increased infection rates. The denial of protection and medical treatment to recipients of long-term care ultimately asks the question whether our societies consider lives in old age to be worth living, as they were not considered to be worth saving. And in that case, should increased life expectancy really be welcomed as social progress? Restricting ageing to economic costs of pensions, health and care means avoiding the fundamental question of whether we are living up to the promises of the EU treaties in terms of equality.

The Green Paper on ageing will need to be up to these challenging questions.

By Philippe Seidel

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