‘Human rights don’t have a best-before date’: COVID-19 lays bare rampant ageism

The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition) · 14 Apr 2020 · ANDRÉ PICARD

“Four more deaths, all elderly.”

For the family of John Fox, already in mourning, those words cut like a knife in a fresh wound.

The retired RCMP officer had died earlier that day of COVID-19 at the age of 73.

Suddenly, he was just a statistic, part of a throwaway line on the evening news. Hearing Mr. Fox described as “elderly,” albeit anonymously, shocked the family.

“That word is so laden, so dismissive,” says Margaret Gillis, his sister-in-law.

And so common.

What is the implication when you describe someone as “elderly?” That they are unimportant? Disposable? Ready to die?

Ms. Gillis says those are assumptions we make all too often about people of a certain age.

And she would know.

In addition to losing a loved one to the pandemic, Ms. Gillis is president of the International Longevity Centre (ILC Canada), a group that advocates for the human rights of older people and against the rampant ageism in society.

“John’s death has made the pandemic more real for me,” Ms. Gillis says. “It’s also given a new urgency to my work – tackling the almost inbred ageism in society.”

Ms. Gillis says that, on the surface, calling someone “elderly” may not seem like a big deal, but language matters because assumptions and prejudices permeate public policies.

We need not look any further than the horror story unfolding in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Canada and around the world.

We have known from the get-go that people in institutional care were among the most vulnerable to a pandemic. Yet little was done to protect them.

News of outbreaks in facilities that house seniors trickles out when the situation become so dire that dozens die – such as at the Résidence Herron in Dorval, Que., or the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont.

But it’s hard to even figure out how many outbreaks there are in these high-risk institutions, a reminder of the old adage: “If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.”

For the most part, older people don’t count.

We’ve seen that illustrated in the debates about what would happen if COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals. Beds and ventilators would go first to younger people, not people with disabilities and the elderly.

“In Italy, you could barely get in the door of a hospital if you were over 60,” Ms. Gillis says.

The tales of older people found dead in nursing homes and in their homes in Spain and Italy are legion. Most didn’t even get counted in the official coronavirus statistics.

Just more dead old people.

“We have this attitude that people who are not seen as contributing to the economy have no value,” Ms. Gillis says.

In popular culture, you can joke about a person’s age in a way you can’t about their race or religion. We see this reflected too in popular memes like “Okay, Boomer” – which has morphed into the more nihilistic “Boomer Remover” descriptor of coronavirus.

Many have played down the severity of the pandemic by saying it “only kills old people.” Others have suggested that, rather than the sweeping physical-distancing rules that have been imposed, we simply quarantine older people and let everyone else get on with their lives, or that we let coronavirus run wild so herd immunity develops and the “old and the weak” are culled.

Ms. Gillis says these crass approaches ignore the fact that “human rights don’t have a best-before date” and that many, if not most, older adults have rich lives.

She points to her brother-in-law, saying that like all the others who have died in the pandemic, “he is more than a statistic … he was a spouse, a father, a grandfather who contributed a lot to his community.”

Mr. Fox was a big bear of a man, healthy as a horse, with no underlying health conditions before he contracted coronavirus.

Shortly before he fell ill, he played golf; in recent weeks, he had been kayaking and hiking. Mr. Fox was an active volunteer with a therapeutic horseback-riding group for children with developmental and physical disabilities. Having seen far too many gruesome highway crashes over his police career, Mr. Fox was also a dedicated blood donor.

“Elderly” was certainly not a label that fit.

But is it ever?