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Combating Systemic Ageism in Emergency Preparedness Responses

April 23, 2020  · 3 min read

Upgraded to pandemic status by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020, COVID-19 virus cases have increased exponentially around the globe. Decreased immune response among older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions (including high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes) means that the virus is more likely to cause severe complications leading to hospitalization and potentially death. 

Emergency preparedness responses are developed to respond to the needs of all vulnerable populations including older people. Yet, we now know in this pandemic that health systems are generally under-prepared for the rapidly growing wave of new cases including older people with chronic co-morbid conditions. Many front-line health professionals are experiencing every single day the ethical dilemma of whose life to save with the limited equipment, hospital beds and treatments. 

In Italy, an overwhelming surge of COVID-19 cases has pushed the public health system to capacity. Hospitals are facing the impossible choice of triaging people based on age and implied likelihood of survival. According to this recent article, that’s what hospital guidelines dictate doctors do. 

The WHO describes ageism as the discrimination of people on the basis of age, which has negative impacts on health and well-being. In the case of COVID-19 emergency responses, is it ageism that is driving decision about denying ventilation and other treatment to older people, and / or is it about survival and quality of life post infection. Will we ever know?

Policies that discriminate based on age are out of touch with the global reality that the ageing population is a powerful and positive demographic force.  In these instances, thoughtful reflection is required on the nature of discriminatory practices, the investment in prevention and the language of humanity. 

While Italy may be the first country confronted with this choice, chances are that they will not be the last. This begs the question, in a country that is said to have one of the oldest populations in the world, what public health policies and guidelines are in place to protect vulnerable populations including older people? 

Combating ageism requires a global movement that involves citizens, governments, non-governments, academia, and industry in order to transform attitudes and actions across generations and civilization.  The International Federation on Ageing (IFA) works relentlessly alongside members and supporters to bring attention to the rights of older people. On 31 October 2020 as part of IFA’s 15th Global Conference on Ageing taking place in Niagara Falls, Canada, a Master Class on Ageism will bring together a global network of peers in the aim of combating ageism at scale. Register now to learn about the latest global evidence on ageism; gain knowledge and skills to develop evidence-based interventions to tackle ageism; and develop a plan to implement interventions to tackle ageism in your context. 

In the meantime, the IFA Expert Centre provides a point of contact to specialists in the fields of ageing, immunology, human rights and more. For more information on population ageing and the rights of older persons, contact Prof. Andrew Byrnes, Professor of International Law and Human Rights in Sydney, Australia; Dr. Isabella Aboderin, Head of the Program on Aging and Development in Nairobi, Kenya; or Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Dean of the Department of Family Medicine and Geriatrics at the Keck School of Medicine in California, United States.

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