Ageism and ableism and the coronavirus pandemic

The ageism and ableism that we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic could lead to older people thinking they are less deserving of opportunities in the workplace, a webinar last week heard.



The prejudice and bias that have been laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic could impact older people in the workplace, according to a leading researcher.

Dr Mariska van der Horst, Assistant Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told an International Longevity Centre UK webinar on ageism and ableism last week that older people may internalise the bias and limit their choices in ways that are not in their own self interest. They may feel less deserving of job opportunities, be more likely to take early retirement and make way for younger workers, even though some would need to work longer because of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

For Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, the ageism and ableism shown during the pandemic is a historic opportunity to build on awareness of the impact of prejudice.

She said we tend to act as if fears about ageing and disability are two separate things when there is some overlap, particularly around stigma and bias, and Covid-19 deeply exposes how ageing and ableism are intertwined and the need for an intersectional approach.

She cited several examples such as attitudes to care home deaths and to care workers, most of whom are women of colour. One newspaper, for instance, talked about ‘culling’ older people. Older people were often stereotyped as being one homogenous frail group.  Applewhite said Covid-19 had not made prejudice worse, but had exposed it and now was the time to build greater awareness about it. She said individuals had to force change and fight manufactured divisions between generations. There was much more diversity within age groups than between them, she said.

Heléna Herklots CBE, Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, agreed that the virus had laid bare prejudice. Older people were lumped together in a vulnerable group due to their age, rather than to the actual risks they faced and that had framed priorities and decisions, for instance, over failure to resuscitate orders older and disabled people had been asked to sign. 

She had asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate potential breaches of older people’s rights during the pandemic. She wanted to see more intergenerational solidarity in the next phase of the pandemic. There was a danger, she said, that younger people would be pitted against older people, for instance, a narrative was developing that young people had sacrificed a lot to protect the old which was not true. Individuals needed to be relentless in calling out ageism, mandatory training needed to be introduced to combat ageism and more needed to be done to educate people about their rights to equal treatment..

Baroness Sally Greengross, Chief Executive of the ILC-UK, said she believed a lot of the bias was unconscious and called for more funding to tackle the social care crisis and to prevent further unnecessary deaths. 

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