If there is one thing that human beings desire, it is the assurance that we are cared for, and this is especially so during times of adversity. When it comes to the well-being of the elderly in our population, that space has come to be filled, in large part, by the state.
Whether caused by abdication of family members, or a sense of duty to those who would have laboured and built a path upon which successive generations have thrived, most countries seek to ensure their senior citizens are provided for and not left to suffer.
Advances in health care and social conditions in Barbados, and most parts of the region, have resulted in our populations living longer and the quality of life more fulfilling.
According to World Bank 2018 statistics, the average life expectancy at birth for a Barbadian was 79.08 years. In Saint Lucia, for that same period, life expectancy was 76.06 years, while in The Bahamas, it was 73.75 years of age.
Hong Kong, that country which has become a hotbed of demonstrations against Chinese rule, currently leads the world in life expectancy at 82.38 years, followed by the Asian giant, Japan, with 81.91 years of age. At the other end of the spectrum is The Central African Republic, where one is only expected to live, on average, a mere 53.34 years.
Why is this issue of care for the elderly and life expectancy so important at this time? The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which has killed 2.38 million people around the world to date, and infected a staggering 108 million, has forever altered the discussion on these matters. The viral disease’s impact has been most devastating on elderly residents in every country where it has spread.
Densely populated countries like Barbados where many homes are multi-generational, the risks posed to older folks is significantly increased.
Were we to be brutally honest, while we celebrate the lives lived by our numerous centenarians, we have often been less than kind and honourable to most old people.
We are familiar with the horror stories of senior citizens being abandoned at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) by family members, who either lack the capacity or the empathy to care for their aged relatives.
We are also aware of the physical and financial abuse older Barbadians also suffer, oftentimes at the hands of those who are expected to look after their wellbeing.
And so, we are not surprised by the call from Marilyn Rice-Bowen, president of the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) for the country’s older population to be at the front of the queue when we commence our mass vaccination process against COVID-19.
We have gained quick access to 100 000 doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to the generosity of the Indian Government. We commend the efforts of the current administration, which has designed its priority list. However, the startling rise in COVID-19 deaths among our senior citizens since the beginning of the year, should have vaulted our seniors to the top of the state’s priority list.
Yes. Our front-line workers operating in the healthcare system, ports of entry, and law enforcement, as well as key state officials, should be among the first to get the vaccine. But by virtue of vulnerability status, our thousands of over-60s, and even over-50s, should be near the top of the line.
The fact that we have among the highest rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension and diabetes, in this region, and with the increasing prevalence rate for these conditions among our older population, we believe the case was made for who should receive them first, even before the vaccines arrived.
“We definitely feel that seniors should be on the list of priority persons. We also want to have an audience with the Minister of Health and Wellness Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic,” she said.
We concede that our Minister of Health and Wellness is a busy man, who has been in the trenches from March last year, battling this unseen enemy. However, given BARP’s 25 000-strong membership, the organization should have been given a place on the state’s planning and response committee, as a key stakeholder.
The vaccine’s rollout is still in its early stage here. For this reason, we call on the Ministry of Health and Wellness to include BARP as a key partner in its plan to reach and convince seniors to become inoculated.
As a strong advocate among her members, Rice-Bowen has already signalled her desire, and that of her BARP board of directors, to take the vaccine, even as the skeptics grow louder.
She told this newspaper just days ago: “We are quite prepared to take the vaccine. It will, of course, be a personal decision for each member. But given the way this disease has ravaged seniors, and the fact that the vaccine is supposed to offer you a better quality of life, one would think that we should be keen on receiving it to ensure that we can maintain a good quality of life.”
Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine is an important piece of advice for older citizens. Our scarce human and financial resources cannot sustain the rate at which COVID-19 infections are occurring on the island, and we certainly cannot accept the death rate for this illness that we are currently recording.