Older persons, most of them also chronically ill, are at extremely high risk of serious consequences of coronavirus infection, which is why they need to be effectively protected, not only by prevention measures, but also through support in accepting major changes in everyday life that have been introduced in order to combat the pandemic.
Every fourth older person in Croatia is at risk of poverty, many are already in poor health and large number of them live alone, without family members who can provide help. At the same time, their life habits and financial capabilities, in many cases, do not include the use of electronic media, online shops, ATMs or contactless payment, as well as all other benefits of modern life whose use is being suggested to prevent the spread of pandemic. In such circumstances, it is extremely important to provide them necessary support, and to help them adapt to sudden changes in everyday life and strict adherence to all precautionary measures, including physical distancing.
From the perspective of older persons, health care and social welfare systems are the most important. Often having numerous chronic illnesses, adequate health care, regardless of COVID-19, is of the utmost importance for them. Consequently, measures aiming at establishing easier contact with family physicians as well as the delivery of medicines prescribed to them, should be supported.
In the social welfare system, in addition to the centres for social welfare and family centres, situation in the long-term care institutions is especially sensitive. Exactly in this type of institutions, systematic implementation of preventive measures and protection is of the utmost importance, which is why, immediately after the outbreak of the pandemic in early March, Ombudswoman Lora Vidović asked the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy to provide details on the preparedness of the welfare system to protect both beneficiaries and staff members from the infection.
Unfortunately, the homes for older persons came to the public’s attention in early April, after it was discovered that 10 long-term care beneficiaries had been infected with coronavirus in Split, and allegedly, the first symptoms had not been reported to authorities. Contrary to that, reporting the first symptoms, or even the suspicion, of COVID-19 is the responsibility of every Home, as stipulated by the Instructions for Prevention and Suppression of the COVID-19 Epidemic in Homes for older persons and other institutions in the Welfare System of March 27, 2020. Therefore, the Ombudswoman initiated an investigation and requested detailed information from Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy, as well as from the Teaching Institute of Public Health and the long term care institution in question, particularly regarding the need for further clarification or problems reported by Home in the implementation of these guidelines.
In addition, after the restriction of freedom of movement, upon which it is possible to leave one’s place of residence only with an issued pass, it is even more difficult for older persons who don’t receive their pensions by mail and reside in places without a bank or ATM. This is a long-term problem Ombudswoman warned the Croatian Parliament about, in several previous annual reports. Consequently, retired persons must either travel, which many cannot due to their poor health or exceeding costs, or ask someone to collect their pension for them, exposing them to fraud, which is also the case when they need to get the groceries or medicines delivered to them.
Preventive measures, particularly so-called social distancing, can also have a negative impact on the already existing sense of social exclusion of the older persons, including those in long term care. Since the suspension of visits, many of them face hindered or totally impossible contact with the outside world, including with their family members, which is why they should be provided with an alternative communication means, such as free video calls.
Unfortunately, we have also witnessed utterly inappropriate statements made by a Member of Parliament, which upset older citizens by diminishing the value of their lives. Treatment of the older persons as a group whose health and life are less valuable invokes some of the cruellest doctrines in the history of the mankind, based on the suppression of human rights of certain social groups.
Lastly, it is important to keep older persons aware of all relevant information about the epidemic prevention and suppression, in an understandable and acceptable way. Adoption of new and changing of existing measures should also take into account their perspective to avoid further marginalisation, as well as to minimise the negative effects the pandemic could have on some of most vulnerable members of our society.