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COVID-19 crisis shows the specific needs of older persons must receive more attention in emergencies

Published: 12 November 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of older persons, who have borne the brunt of severe illness and mortality as well as of acute loneliness and isolation. Up to September 2020, nearly 9 out of 10 COVID-19 related deaths reported in the UNECE region were among adults aged 65 years and older.

Emergency situations create stress in social and economic life and test the resilience of individuals and communities. Although older men and women are generally disproportionately impacted by emergency situations, they are often neglected in disaster risk reduction strategies and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. In an emergency, older women are at greater risk than men, because they are more often widowed and living alone, and because of gendered disadvantages that tend to accumulate over the life course.

Aiming to support more age-inclusive approaches, a new UNECE Policy Brief explores the situation of older persons in emergency situations in the region, presents practical country examples, and suggests strategies, many of which draw on the lessons learned thus far from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking beyond the pandemic, the brief highlights the increasing frequency, gravity, and impact of emergency situations occurring in the region, intensified by climate change, industrialisation, urbanization, and globalization. Between 2001 and 2019, emergency crises in the UNECE region affected an estimated 130 million people, injuring over 90 million, and making nearly 674,000 people homeless. In order to prevent and mitigate the potentially devastating implications of emergency crises on older persons, strategies need to be “older persons friendly and inclusive”.

This is especially crucial in the UNECE region, where population ageing is the most advanced: persons aged 65 and older account for almost 17 per cent of the total population in 2020, and this will increase to around 24 per cent in 2050.

Strategies proposed in the brief include measures to:

Engage older persons in the development of preparedness plans and disaster risk reduction strategies. Actively engaging older persons in the design, implementation, and monitoring of measures during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath helps to ensure that policies meet their needs and retain their support.

Give full consideration to older persons in the mechanisms and operations of national and regional Civil Protection. For instance, the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism coordinates deployments and provides financial support. It is important that these mutual support mechanisms take into account also the needs and perspectives of older persons.

Address the needs and rights of older persons in relief efforts. In Portugal during the COVID-19 disruptions, Lisbon City Hall, 24 Parish Councils (Juntas de Freguesia) and the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lisbon (SCML) created a common network to support food delivery for older persons and those with limited mobility. The measure involved ensuring the delivery of meals, medicines, and basic necessities, depending on the autonomy of the beneficiaries.

Provide financial support and extended social protection measures to protect older persons from the social and economic stress resulting from emergency crises. The Swedish Ministry of Culture announced in May 2020 an investment of SEK 100 million (€9.6 million) to support civil society organizations working with the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis, earmarking 50 million SEK (€4.8 million) for organizations addressing loneliness and isolation of older persons.

Develop recovery strategies and actions geared towards “building back better”. The Balkans flood in 2014 affected an estimated 3 million people across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In 2017, older people benefited from the Housing Interventions Programme for an estimated 3,000 households in Bosnia and Herzegovina affected by the 2014 Balkans flood. This was financed by a EUR 15 million donation from the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. The Programme prioritized assistance to marginalized groups, older people, low income households and persons with disabilities.

Promote the collection, analysis, and dissemination of gender- and age-disaggregated data, to inform emergency preparedness, relief, and recovery strategies. For example, American Community Survey statistics from the United States Census Bureau help to identify counties with large at-risk populations such as those with a large share of older persons. It is important that data allow for a differentiation between older and oldest old persons (80+), who have different needs and capacities.

While some older persons face a multitude of challenges including a lack of adequate care or social isolation, many older people are a valuable resource in the preparedness, response and recovery phases of emergencies. Daniel López Acuña, Adjunct Professor of the Andalusian School of Public Health, Spain, who contributed to the preparation of the Policy Brief, explained that “the challenge is not only to protect older persons and ensure essential services provide for their needs during and after crises, it is also to account for the diversity of this population group, recognize their capacities and make the most of their experience to minimize the impact of emergencies”.  

UNECE draws together the experiences from a wide range of countries within the region, to facilitate cross-country learning on older persons and emergencies, and inform best practices. A UNECE policy webinar on “Older persons in emergency situations: lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic” on 18 November 2020 will give national focal points on ageing and other stakeholders the opportunity to discuss the challenges and policy responses developed and collectively reflect on the lessons learnt so far. Ultimately, emergency events are not always unforeseen catastrophes. Societies can organize themselves to reduce the risks, mitigate the potential impacts to older persons, and recover from the crisis.

Policy Brief No. 25 – Older Persons in Emergency Situations


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