By G9ija

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that everyone has a duty to support older people in realizing their human rights and living with dignity.

The WHO lamented that as a result of the prevailing COVID-19, more than 17,000 people aged over 55 years have lost their lives in Africa.

This accounts for over 50 per cent death as a result of COVID-19 on the African continent.

Speaking on the International Day of Older Persons, an annual celebration of senior citizens around the world, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, in a message on Wednesday, said the day gives a chance to take stock of the opportunities and challenges related to population ageing towards ensuring societies are accommodating of all ages.

He said: “Our elders provide us with love and care, and are a source of wisdom and talent, influencing who we are and who we aspire to be. Together we have a duty to support older people in realizing their human rights and living with dignity.

“This year’s theme is ‘Pandemics: do they change how we address age and ageing?’ because we know that older people are at higher risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. In the African region, more than 17,000 people aged over 55 years have lost their lives to COVID-19, accounting for over 50% of the COVID-19 deaths in the region.

“To address the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on older people, we must all play a role in shielding our elders, including by practising the preventive measures of wearing masks, keeping a physical distance and frequently washing our hands.

“Continuity of other essential services for older people is also important. Many African countries are offering multi-month prescriptions for people with chronic diseases to reduce the frequency of visits to healthcare facilities. In some countries, such as Mauritius, health workers are reaching out to older people in their homes, to ensure that services, like the seasonal flu shot, continue to be delivered.

“With restrictions on movement and gathering, social isolation of older people is also a concern. We can contribute to addressing this by picking up the phone to call our senior relatives and offering to assist older people in our communities or keep them company.”

According to Moeti, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also seen the continued commitment of older people, including among retired health workers, who have returned to work to protect their communities.

“Looking at the big picture, in Africa, people are living longer than ever before. There are around 54 million people aged over 60 years in sub-Saharan Africa, representing 5% of older adults worldwide. The population of older people in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to reach 67 million by 2025 and 163 million by 2050.

“In recognition of the profound social and economic impacts of population ageing globally, 2020 has been designated as the start of the Decade of Healthy Ageing. This is an opportunity to invest more in living long and healthy lives, to combat ageism and enhance the autonomy of older persons, including by building resilient health and social systems that incorporate the needs of older people.”

He however lamented that: “Key challenges in the African region include the lack of comprehensive long-term care systems, low coverage of social protection schemes and inadequate data to shape policy interventions.

“At the same time, some countries are making good progress. Ghana, for example, has reflected the needs of older people in its National Health Insurance Scheme and essential medicines list. Data are also available to enable the Scheme to review and adjust the policies of the National Health Insurance Authority to address the needs of older people.

“At WHO, we are working with 40 African countries to build capacity for the integrated care of older people, an approach that centres on community-based care, early detection and management of declines in physical and mental capacities, and supporting household caregivers. In line with the global strategy and action plan on ageing and health 2016–2020, twenty-three African countries have multisectoral healthy ageing policies and strategic plans.

“Going forward, we are increasing the focus on integrated, people-centred care in the African region, to address the needs of different population subgroups, including older adults.

“In closing, let me thank and pay homage to our elders, our family members and mentors, and older health workers and members of our communities, for your wisdom and your service towards bettering our societies.”