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Ageism and COVID-19

Age Discrimination
An elderly man sitting on a sofa at home, looking into the camera.

As Age Discrimination Commissioner, I am always concerned when I see ageism in Australian society, whether as a direct driver of behaviour or as the indirect, unintended consequence of public discussions and policy implementation. Right now, we are seeing ever-present ageist ideas playing out in a number of ways and affecting different age cohorts as our society continues to grapple with COVID-19.

The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly in Australia, as elsewhere. I am concerned that some of the discussion around age-based data and the impact of the virus on certain age cohorts is underpinned by ageist stereotypes that devalue the contributions of older people to our community, and ultimately devalue their lives.

Older Australians are a very visible part of the COVID-19 narrative, but their opinions and stories are not always being heard. It is vital that, wherever possible, we balance people’s vulnerability to this virus with their ongoing rights to autonomy. It is vital that we acknowledge that all lives, regardless of age, are of equal value. And it is vital that we remember people of all ages are susceptible to COVID-19, particularly (though not exclusively) those who may be immunocompromised.

Difficult decisions will continue to be made during this time, but we can ensure that basic human rights principles such as respect and dignity continue to guide us. We can ensure that measures are transparent, reasonably necessary, for the minimum time and that the decision-makers are accountable.

In recent weeks, I have been working with stakeholders to develop elder abuse messaging in the expectation of a rise in cases during social isolation, with recent reports from Queensland already confirming this worrying trend; monitoring mainstream media and social channels for ageist comments and responses; dealing with issues raised by community groups and connecting them with relevant services.

In addition, I've been creating strategies with the Collaborative Partnership for Mature Age Employment, to assist older workers through the recovery phase.

Singling out a particular cohort for different treatment - such as recommending stricter isolation for older people - does not necessarily constitute age discrimination. But the potential for ageism is present and so it is important that human rights principles are followed and that such decisions are examined in the light of this potential for age discrimination.

It is not only older people who are the subject of age-based stereotypes in these discussions. For example, some commentary stereotypes younger adults as selfish or being unable to follow simple instructions - and of course, younger people may be disproportionately affected by measures such as workplace restrictions or job insecurity. Age discrimination applies across all life stages and ages.

Often these age-based discussions portray age groups as being self-contained, disconnected from other age groups, whereas in fact we live, work and socialise with people across a range of generations, in our families, our workplaces and more. 

We need to recognise and call out ageism when we see it and respect the intrinsic value of all lives, irrespective of age. 

It is important to consider the language used when discussing age and COVID-19 to ensure it doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. Remember that ‘people over 60’ is a very broad group, spanning well over four decades. The needs, health outcomes and characteristics of a typical 60-year-old are likely to be very different than those of someone in their 80s or older. And many older Australians dislike the word ‘elderly’, especially when applied to anyone younger than 80 or even 85.

As Australians of all ages are required to follow physical distancing measures, it is time for solidarity across all age groups, time to call on these intergenerational relationships and foster these connections as a way of countering the loneliness that many people, younger and older, experience – and which is exacerbated as a result of these measures. Think about ways the generations can work together; even simple steps such as supporting the social connections of someone in your life from a different generation.

And if we do need to implement health triage protocols, these must be developed and applied to ensure decisions are made on the basis of medical and scientific evidence, not solely on non-medical grounds, such as age or disability. This will support an ethical and more efficient public health response for all affected by this disease. 

Within a human rights context, it is important to acknowledge that COVID-19 is a test of governments, communities and individuals. To tackle the virus, we need solidarity, cooperation and respect for human rights to mitigate against the risk of age discrimination as an unintended consequence of our response, as our society grapples with, and then recovers from, the pandemic. It is important that no section of our community is left behind on the road to recovery from this global crisis.

The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO
Age Discrimination Commissioner

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Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner

Age Discrimination