The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered radical and unprecedented measures in Europe and around the world. Some of these measures have been pointed out as violating basic human rights. Three years after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe, the European Parliament is looking at the impact of EU’s response on democracy and fundamental rights and is inviting stakeholders – including civil society – to share their views. The debate will help the European Parliament to draft a final report with the ‘lessons learned’ and recommendations for the future.
Throughout the discussions, we have tried to ensure that the voices of the many older people who have both been hit hard by the pandemic and also contributed to the recovery were heard. Above all, we have been advocating for a new vision of ageing and of long-term care.
From recognition to action
Abuse, violence and neglect affect an estimate of one in six of people over 60 worldwide, while older persons with care needs seem to be much more exposed: two in three care staff said to have committed some form of abuse or neglect according to WHO.. This reality was aggravated and made more visible during the COVID-19 crisis.
It was in that context that we started joining forces in 2020 with the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the European Disability Forum (EDF) to call on the EU Parliament to investigate the tragic impact of COVID-19 on long-term care across the European Union and for “far-reaching reforms” in long-term care
Our call received a large support by MEPs, and in a plenary debate in October 2020 MEPs acknowledged the serious breaches of the dignity of older people and people with disabilities in long-term care facilities during the pandemic.
In March 2022, a special European Parliament committee on COVID-19, the COVI Committee, was established in order to examine the impact of EU response to the pandemic, draw lessons from the pandemic and draft recommendations for the future. Its work focuses on four key pillars: health, democracy and fundamental rights, societal and economic impact, and the EU and the World.
In February 2022, jointly with the EPSU and EDF again, we addressed a letter to the President of the European Parliament calling for the mandate of this new committee to include the impact of the pandemic on long-term care facilities, their residents and their workers.
A public hearing of the COVI Committee took place end of January 2023, in which AGE was invited to share the perspective of older persons on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on the fundamental rights of older persons.
‘To overcome COVID-19, we need to step up the fight against ageism’
During the public hearing of the European Parliament on 31 January, our Secretary General, Maciej Kucharczyk, acknowledged the strong solidarity received by older people during the pandemic, but he also highlighted massive violations of the rights of older persons.
Talking to the European Parliament’s Special Committee, AGE insisted that older persons were not vulnerable per se to the pandemic, but that ageism made them vulnerable. They were in fact a huge resource for our communities and societies; but measures were taken by governments against their rights to health, social inclusion and independence as they were seen only from the angle of vulnerability – and as other groups of the population were also vulnerable to fatal and serious forms of the disease.
AGE reminded that the right to health was violated by the lack of preparation and foresight, which led to wide spread of the virus particularly in long-term care settings. Ageism was evident in decisions not to provide medical care to older persons suffering from infections. The reduction of care services, deprogramming of ‘non-urgent’ medical intervention over a long period and the massive digitalisation of health care further reduced older persons’ access to health.
The particularly harsh and long-lasting isolation measures in long-term care reduced older persons ability to enjoy the right to social inclusion, leading to a ‘pandemic of loneliness’.
AGE emphasised some positive practices that became visible during the pandemic, such as the prioritisation of at-risk populations in vaccination strategies, the fact that COVID-19 led to fewer infections and deaths in small-scale care settings or initiatives to specifically increase the digital skills of older persons.
Ensuring equality across all age groups in Europe
To learn from the lessons of the pandemic, we called for the adoption of an EU Age Equality Strategy, as a way to tackle systemic ageism at EU and Member State level. Such a strategy would bring together policies as different as employment, education, social protection, health, food, urbanism, housing, transportation under a common goal: that people of all ages have the same rights and that governments have the obligation that their rights are fulfilled on an equal basis with others.
The speech was part of a discussion with MEPs alongside the chair of the Spanish Committee of Persons with Disabilities, Ms Ana Peláez Narvaez. She confirmed that triage also affected persons with disabilities and that it took strong actions by disability organisations to stop it. Responding to a question of MEP Katrin Langensiepen, Mr Kucharczyk called to increase support to all forms of care and further roll-out of community-based care. Addressing a question on social isolation and loneliness, Mr Kucharzyk also called on the Special Committee to emphasize the importance to act on the mental health of older persons, an aspect widely overlooked by health systems.