GENEVA (27 March 2020) – Society has a duty to exercise solidarity and better protect older persons who are bearing the lion’s share of the COVID-19 pandemic, a UN human rights expert said.

“Reports of abandoned older persons in care homes or of dead corpses found in nursing homes are alarming. This is unacceptable,” said Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons. “We all have the obligation to exercise solidarity and protect older persons from such harm.”

Older persons do not only face a disproportionate risk of death but they are further threatened by COVID-19 due to their care support needs or by living in high-risk environments such as institutions, the expert said.

Kornfeld-Matte expressed particular concerns about older persons with underlying health conditions and those who are already socially excluded, living in poverty, having limited access to health services, or living in confined spaces such as prisons and residential care homes.

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“This social exclusion is exacerbated by ‘social’ distancing measures, such as denying visitors to residential care homes. Social distancing must not become social exclusion,” the expert said.

“Physical distance is crucial but creative and safe ways must be found to increase social connections. Older persons must be provided with ways to stay in touch online, including those in residential care homes and remote areas,” she urged.

The Independent Expert noted that older persons are already facing particular old age discrimination (“ageism”) and therefore require specific rights protection. She stressed the urgent need for a holistic human rights approach for older persons that ensures equal realization of all their rights, including access to health care.

“I am deeply concerned that decisions around the allocation of scarce medical resources such as ventilators in intensive care units may be made solely on the basis of age, denying older persons their right to health and life on an equal basis with others.

“Triage protocols must be developed and followed to ensure such decisions are made on the basis of medical needs, the best scientific evidence available and not on non-medical criteria such as age or disability.

“Older persons have become highly visible in the COVID 19 outbreak but their voices, opinions and concerns have not been heard. Instead, the deep-rooted ageism in our societies has become even more apparent. We have seen this in some cruel and dehumanizing language on social media and in the exclusive emphasis on older persons’ vulnerability ignoring their autonomy,” Kornfeld-Matte said.

She finally called on all stakeholders to ensure that essential support services at home in the communities can continue without putting older persons and their care providers at risk. “Communities and generations must come together to get through this crisis in solidarity,” the UN expert concluded.

Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte (Chile) was appointed by Human Rights Council as the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May 2014. Ms Kornfeld-Matte served as the National Director of the Chilean National Service of Ageing, where she designed and implemented the National Policy of Ageing. She has a long career as an academic and is the founder of the programme for older persons at the Pontificia Unversidad Católica de Chile.

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