Balancing the scales: Covid19 discrimination and future promise

In early March at the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic I wrote an opinion piece for The National which I concluded with the words:

‘Coronavirus will be a test not just of the infrastructures of health and care, of business and commerce, it will be a test which will determine the nature of our nation. Will we be a Scotland that cares for the old or will our compassion be limited by discrimination?’

That piece was written on the back of statements which suggested that we did not need to worry about the disease because it would only kill the old. Both social media and some wider media comment at the time was full of comments which articulated a view that Coronavirus was a ‘boomer harvest’, one of the many sickening references to the baby-boomer generation. The public health message across the United Kingdom at the time was ‘wash your hands and catch your cough.’

Twelve weeks on the truth is that this pernicious virus has indeed taken a devastating toll of the older age population with nearly three quarters of all deaths in Scotland and worldwide amongst those over the age of 75. It is also the sad truth that those who were most vulnerable as a result of age, frailty, dementia and other conditions, and who have been residents in our care homes, have been the hardest hit. This is the story of this pandemic as it has crossed the face of the world, its hurt has taken away from us our memory and soul, its scars have left a mark which will take long to heal.

So has our response been one of inclusiveness, of valuing all, of non-discrimination or has the pervasiveness of age discrimination and bias, subjects I have often written about, been evidenced in our pandemic response as a Scottish society, as a political, health and care system?

I will leave you to make your own mind up on that. But …

In recognising the evidence, we were getting from China in January, South Korea and Singapore, Italy and Spain in February, France and Germany in March, did we sufficiently protect our older citizens? Did we ‘contain’ for too long out of a desire to ‘bring people with us’ and lessen harm to the economy which meant that the entry into lockdown made our older population all the more vulnerable?

In noting the relative success of a strict test, trace and isolate model in some parts of the world with the continual echo of the World Health Organisation stating ‘Test, test, test’ to anyone who would listen,  did we as part of a Four Nation collective response abandon that safeguard too early?

In our desire to prevent our acute NHS system from being over-run did we so encourage the discharge of hundreds of older people from hospitals into the community and care homes where they were to be at greater risk or was staying in hospital an even higher threat?

In our requirement to protect the NHS at all costs did we fail to recognise the importance of ensuring that social care providers and their staff were to be an equal frontline so that requisitioning PPE supplies for the NHS would make their battle all the harder to fight?

In our desire to be prepared for an overflow did the indiscriminate phone-calls and letters about the importance of ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders serve to put older and vulnerable citizens into a state of real fear, leaving them with the feeling that they were of lesser worth or value?

In our requirement to support frontline clinicians to make hard treatment decisions if we should face resource constraints and run out of equipment did our ethical framework not give the impression that age would be used as a primary proxy for decision-making?

In our desire to reduce unnecessary admissions into hospitals in order to prevent the anticipated surge did our official Guidance give older people in care homes the impression that they were not to be admitted but were to be cared for and die in situ?

In our withdrawal of packages of care and support from some of the most elderly in our communities did we not place them at even greater harm not just from the virus but from dying alone, without contact, potentially hungry and disconnected?

I have my own views on each of the above but one thing I am clear of is that the attitudes of age discrimination which existed in Scotland before this pandemic have not been wiped away with its pain rather they have been magnified and lit large.

For years I have written about the way in which we have failed to value our older citizens in many disparate ways. But I see very little point in recounting these. Rather as we leave lockdown we have an opportunity to leave behind systems, models and approaches which have not worked and have failed our older citizens. We have the opportunity to cast off attitudes and behaviours which have served only to limit our humanity by dressing ourselves up into a pretence of equality.

Social care is still fighting this virus. It has not gone away and there is much more still to be done. But this is also a time for re-formation and reflection, renewal and re-orientation.

We have the opportunity to finally have honest discussions about how we will value and celebrate the reality that we have one of the fastest ageing populations in Europe. Faced with the gift of longevity and a growing life expectancy, how are we to enable those living longer even with conditions such as dementia to live until the end in the fullest and richest way possible?

We have the chance to change the way in which we value social care and those who work in it. It is not acceptable that we consider that being paid the minimum or living wage should somehow be the summit of our collective aspiration. It is not acceptable that there should be such disparity in what the State funds and what we expect citizens to pay. It is not acceptable that if you are struck down by cancer your care is largely paid for but if you live with dementia you and your family end up being charged.

We have the chance to take some really hard decisions about how as a society we pay for the potential of age which is in our midst. We need to have these grown up national discussions which we have all shied away from especially the closer we get to an election season.

We have the chance to challenge the gender segregation which equates care as being a woman’s work and thus accords it less status where the reality is that care should be the challenge of all, for all and by all. A society that does not care is not a community but a collective assortment of individual egos.

We have the chance to see those who are old as vital contributive individuals. Life does not end until you take your final breath. Let us stop viewing our humanity as if it has a use by date. Let us seriously work at inter-generational levels so that we harvest the knowledge, creativity, skill and ingenuity of all our citizens.

We have the chance to create a system which enables real choice rather than blanket solutions, gives respect and autonomy to our citizens and which takes seriously the human rights and dignity of everyone.

There will be many legacies left by this pandemic. Tragically for many of us there has been raw pain and loss at the heart of the last few weeks. But we owe it to everyone today and tomorrow to make sure that we seize the opportunities we have been given and to really build a social care system and a Scottish society where all are valued and included regardless of chronological age. This will not be achieved by point-scoring, by political fundamentalism, by defensiveness or entrenchment, but by real collaboration, honest humility, and a shared passion that we can and must do better.

Donald Macaskill