Study finds global health measures are not enough to save the most vulnerable people

Photo: JD Mason

Make no mistake, Covid-19 is going to affect you. Millions of people all over the world came to terms with that uncomfortable fact last week, and many of us are still wrapping our minds around what’s to come in the weeks and months ahead. We’re all in this together, and a new study is ringing the alarm that our most vulnerable are being forgotten.

A team of international health experts is calling for a greater emphasis to be placed on older individuals. Older adults are much more susceptible to Covid-19, and researchers are stressing the need for unique response plans to be developed specifically for their needs. Moreover, the number of deaths involving older people living in lower to middle-income countries (Africa, South America) could become staggering if the appropriate measures aren’t taken.

The Coronavirus isn’t something to take lightly, no matter your age or nationality. However, for the elderly living in lesser developed countries, the casualty numbers could reach incomprehensible numbers if they aren’t especially looked after with specially designed plans and committees attending to their needs.

Lower to middle-income nations account for 69% of the world’s population over the age of 60. This, combined with the fact that such countries offer less extensive and appropriate healthcare services and medical facilities, means the world’s older population as a whole is in incredible danger.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the Samson Institute for Ageing Research collaborated on this study.

“The global response to coronavirus must be directed towards those groups who will face the most devastating consequences. So far, this has not happened. We are facing an unprecedented and enormous wave of mortality among older people in these countries,” comments Lloyd-Sherlock, professor of social policy and international development at UEA, in a press release.

Besides poorer medical infrastructure, older adults living in LMICs (lower to middle-income countries) are also at a greater risk of infection due to generally more cramped living situations. While you or I can just stay home and avoid contact until the worst of Covid-19 is behind us, individuals in these nations don’t share that same luxury. Especially older adults living in cramped retirement communities, which are generally more crowded in LMICs.

Even for older people living in the US or Europe, social distancing is much harder when one is dependent on others for care or shopping. Elderly individuals all over the world are facing a much harder time obtaining food and supplies each day during these quarantines.

For now, the virus hasn’t spread extensively in Africa and South America, with Europe and the US appearing to be the most affected at the moment. We know that will probably change though in the coming weeks and months, and the study’s authors are very concerned that these countries’ medical means will be overwhelmed. When and if that happens, it is undoubtedly the elderly that will be most impacted.

“It will not be easy to deal with these problems, especially in settings where there is often weak public health infrastructure, a lack of gerontological expertise at all levels of the health system, and limited trust in government,” the study reads.

Just one coronavirus test is expected to cost around $75 in South Africa. That’s already more than most LMICs spend on each citizen’s health needs annually. 

“However, a first step would be to recognize that these problems exist. An age perspective should be included explicitly in the development of national and global planning for Covid-19, and a global expert group on older people should be formed to support with guidance and response to the virus in both residential facilities and home settings,” the researchers recommend.

“As new knowledge emerges, this group can identify and evaluate cost-effective therapies and interventions that respond to the particular needs of older people in LMICs living in challenging settings, where formal health service infrastructure is limited,” the study concludes. “Previously, some of the authors have argued that global health priority setting is institutionally ageist. Covid-19 offers an opportunity to prove us wrong.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives, but the elderly among us are most at risk. Besides global responses from health organizations, this situation is unique in its opportunity for each person to make a difference. Besides practicing social distancing and staying home for the next few weeks, take a moment and check in on the elderly in your family and community. It may save a life.

The full study can be found here, published in the British Medical Journal.