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19.03.20

Pandemic and People

Bill Johnston, one of Common Weal's collaborators and co-author on upcoming policy work, examines the UK Government's policies towards older people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’re sick and over 70 clap your hands!

The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis is placing massive stress on society and forcing a radical response from the Tory Government in apparently abandoning their neoliberal ideology in favour of ‘bailing out’ Britain.  In the face of these upheavals simply returning to capitalist business as usual after the crisis looks unrealistic and dangerous. Consequently it is imperative to rethink and rebuild for a better political economy and more just society.  Common Weal’s present response of developing Scotland's  foundational economics and advocating the Green New Deal provides an agenda for this essential task.

This article aims to support Common Weal by illuminating the predicament of our ageing population highlighted by the coronavirus crisis.

Pandemic, Population and the People we Care About.

The UK governmental approach to the pandemic began as a whole of population strategy, apparently designed to gradually escalate the degree of intrusion into everyday life, whilst seeking to balance individual responsibility and self-reliance with wider social obligations, medical interventions and business/economic realities.  As the days have passed several major changes in approach have been adopted as the scale of the pandemic rapidly exceeded previous predictions and lessons from other nations became available.  This is likely to be the government’s management model in the coming weeks as the pattern of infection changes, expert advice is revised and the implications of government pronouncements become clearer to the people, communities and businesses affected.  

However Boris Johnson’s bald announcement (12/03/20) that we can all anticipate ‘losing more of our loved ones’ to the coronavirus, tied to the view that the over-60s and over-70s are at significantly greater risk, is an alarming backdrop to rapidly developing events.  Taken at face value, Johnson’s approach signals an early high level decision that little is going to be done to actively protect the older age groups and they are simply going to be mourned as a kind of ‘collateral damage’ in time of crisis. Whilst this stark message is being qualified now by indications that older people are to be ‘protected’ by urging them to self-isolate at home, possibly for months, it is easy to see why older people might not be reassured that their interests have much priority, or convinced that the measures suggested by Johnson have been thought through.  

Taken to the logical conclusion this government positioning could lead to medical decisions for treatment being taken on the grounds of age to the advantage of the younger cohorts and the disadvantage of the over 60’s. Obviously the capacity of an austerity-reduced NHS to treat the full range of patients is a key factor in this crisis situation. The number of beds in the NHS have been significantly reduced and staffing depleted to such a drastic extent that Johnson campaigned in the 2019 General Election on a policy of major investment in hospitals, nurses etc. and his first budget has promised millions to the NHS.  Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has also declared that the NHS would get ‘whatever it needs’ to deal with the coronavirus crisis.  Accordingly the clear failure to invest in the NHS over the last decade illuminates the current public health effort to flatten out the course of the infection, since a sharp peak in the volume of cases in a short time period would now overwhelm the capacity of a weakened NHS to cope.

In addition there is little acknowledgement of the critical importance of social care for an ageing population, indeed there was no mention of care in the budget beyond the vague indication that it would be addressed ‘later in the year’.  This underlines the failure of successive UK Governments to produce a plan for social care for older people despite many promises to do so over successive elections. The consequences of this short-sighted approach do not look good for the protection of older people in the face of COVID-19 during 2020 and beyond, particularly when combined with the weakness of the NHS.  The over-70s in particular are potentially caught in a dangerous place between an underfunded health service and an inadequate social care system.  

Johnson, as Tory PM, is seeking to avoid responsibility for a decade of weakening the NHS and ignoring the care system by presenting the coronavirus crisis as one of epidemiology and demographics, and not one of the policies of successive Tory governments, or the neoliberal political economy they have embraced.  

Ageism and the Coronavirus Crisis.

This political positioning of the crisis in terms of age, population demographics and ‘science’, rather than political ideology, could encourage further discrimination against the old and almost certainly add to a climate of ageism and intergenerational tension when we most need understanding, cohesion and mutual support.   We know that the ‘boomers’ are already a focus of derision and prejudice and there is a long-standing narrative of older people as a burden on welfare budgets and health services.  Johnson’s crass approach and superficial proposals to isolate older people will only serve to strengthen existing prejudices and may serve to further isolate older people.  There is also a clear danger that the progressive work of various international experts and campaigners over the years to challenge ageist thinking and promote a human rights perspective on older people in society (1) will be pushed aside in the current presentation of the COVID-19 crisis in ageist terms.  

This position also stands in sharp contrast to the promise of ‘five extra years’ of life contained in the February 2020 All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Report (2) on the health of the nation.  This report criticises the present shocking state of ill heath suffered by many older people and argues for a public debate on how this can be changed for the better.   The APPG’s admirable promotion of longevity, and claims that it can be extended by five extra years, now looks redundant in the light of what Johnson and co. have been saying over the last two weeks about the likely loss of our (older) loved ones.  

Equally it is only a few years since all parties in Holyrood and Westminster were making great play of the perceived ‘epidemic’ of loneliness and isolation in society, especially amongst older people (3). Yet this concern does not seem to figure in the calculations underpinning the self-isolation proposals or in the various daily briefings by Johnson and his team so far.   By contrast Jeanne Freeman, MSP has been much better at acknowledging the detrimental effects of self-isolation on the mental health and wellbeing of older people in her accounts of the Scottish Government approach to COVID-19.

Conclusions.

In broad terms many older people need more support at present not less, but this simple idea seems to be absent from Johnson’s proposals so far.  Seen from a critical perspective the COVID-19 crisis is a prime example of how effortlessly older people are marginalised and written off by senior neoliberal politicians in the UK.  As such it is a test of Scotland’s capacity for clear thinking and social cohesion in time of crisis against Johnson’s nasty brand of Toryism.  Nicola Sturgeon’s call to rank and file Independence supporters to do their bit for Scotland by helping older people during the crisis (18/02/20) is, therefore, a timely and thought-provoking development in the public space.

Looking ahead to the coming months there is a potential to radically reimagine the reality of an ageing population and change social practices like the care system. What does it need to become? How it is it to be funded? And crucially how it is to be entailed in progressive social and economic change as a whole? This is an opportunity for Common Weal to lead and shape the debate on age, ageing and older people’s rights in Scotland during 2020.

References.

    (1) European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2018) Fundamental Rights Report 2018, http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2018/fundamental-rights-report-2018.
    (2) The Health of the Nation: A Strategy for Longer Lives (2020). All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Longevity; HMG February 2020.
    (3) A Connected Society: A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundation for change. (2018). Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), HMG, October 2018.

 

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