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Eilis O'Hanlon

Dismissal of older people as a nuisance could actually have contributed to deaths

Eilis O'Hanlon



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If there had been no advance warning that the elderly would be more badly hit by Covid-19, then the devastation which has overwhelmed care homes across Northern Ireland as a result of the coronavirus crisis might have been forgivable. File image posed by model

If there had been no advance warning that the elderly would be more badly hit by Covid-19, then the devastation which has overwhelmed care homes across Northern Ireland as a result of the coronavirus crisis might have been forgivable. File image posed by model

If there had been no advance warning that the elderly would be more badly hit by Covid-19, then the devastation which has overwhelmed care homes across Northern Ireland as a result of the coronavirus crisis might have been forgivable. File image posed by model

If there had been no advance warning that the elderly would be more badly hit by Covid-19, then the devastation which has overwhelmed care homes across Northern Ireland as a result of the coronavirus crisis might have been forgivable.

As it was, the air was heavy with the sound of alarm bells.

Northern Ireland was behind the curve compared to other parts of Europe. The first death from Covid-19 was not reported here until March 19. On that day alone, 427 people died in Italy, and it was already being reported, horrifically, that over 80s could be "left to die" because of pressure on hospitals.

There could have been no doubt looking at those figures that they were a glimpse into Northern Ireland's immediate future. First Minister Arlene Foster seemed to recognise as such by pledging, after that first death, to "shield those most vulnerable from the effects of this virus".

Rather than being spurred into action, what followed was a collective outbreak of... how would you describe it? Panic? Complacency? Burying of heads in the sand? Whatever the reason, delay was inexplicable.

There are still many mysterious things about this particular coronavirus, but two things were known from the start.

The first is that old people, in contrast to some previous pandemics, were most likely to die. The second is that the virus was highly infectious and rapidly produced dangerous clusters.

Put together those different factors, and it was obvious that care homes would be in the eye of the storm. As the director of one American nursing home put it bluntly: "A number of people with multiple illnesses, living very closely. Viruses love that."

At the least, personal protective equipment (PPE) should have been earmarked for them as a priority. Instead, it took too long to provide staff with what they needed, and the result has been that the number dying in care homes in Northern Ireland in the four weeks up to April 19 was 68% higher than the previous four weeks.

Only now does deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill come out and say that the "battle is now in our care homes".

It always was.

It would be unfair to suggest there were easy answers. Authorities cannot distribute what they do not have, and there was a severe shortage of PPE for all health workers for weeks.

But care homes should have been further up the queue when equipment became available, and the authorities were too slow to redeploy NHS staff when, despite original fears, hospitals were mercifully not overwhelmed by the surge.

Both those decisions undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths, and not only in Northern Ireland. The same tragedy has played out south of the border as well. It is too easy to shrug and say that the victims were old anyway, or had underlying health conditions which would have exacerbated their risk of death whatever precautions were taken. The average age of victims of Covid-19 is over 80. That means they were born in the 1930s or even earlier. They have endured huge economic hardship for most of Northern Ireland's history. Their entire adult lives were overshadowed by the Troubles. Now their lives have been snatched away. It is not for anyone to decide that, just because they have had their allotted three score years and 10, they did not have more living to do, or that their avoidable deaths are any less tragic. Shockingly, these dismissive attitudes towards the elderly seems to be getting worse rather than better.

A study last year found that ageism was now the most common form of prejudice; and what makes it more heartbreaking is that it can lead many older people themselves to feel they should not make a fuss.

Despite staring death in the face during this crisis, polls show they actually want younger people to be given the chance to get back to normality, even at the risk to themselves. Their selflessness is still not properly recognised. It used to be that the elderly were valued for their wisdom, or for the contribution they had made to the country during their lives. Now they are increasingly regarded as a nuisance or hindrance. That could actually be a contributory factor to the death toll.

Many parts of the developing world have been less badly hit by Covid-19, despite being poorer and with threadbare healthcare systems. One reason which has been suggested for why that might be the case is because elderly relatives live at home with their families. Those who place their parents in a nursing home are simply trying to do their best in trying circumstances, juggling their responsibilities as children, parents, workers.

It is never easy. Care homes also do a tireless job of looking after the vulnerable. But if nothing else, the terrible toll this virus has exacted should lead to an urgent rethink in how we see older people as a burden on society, rather than an asset.

Belfast Telegraph