COVID-19 pandemic can slow progress in policy making for healthy ageing in Africa: WHO

Low literacy rates among elderly made access to online health services difficult

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 10 February 2022
Healthy ageing in Africa: Pandemic can slow progress in policy making for rapidly ageing population Photo: iStock

Africa may be in for steep rise in its burden of non-communicable disease as its ‘older’ population will nearly triple in three decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned.
Little provision has been made in planning for this demographic transition and this was made more pronounced by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, found a new study by the United Nations health agency. 

The massive economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region can slow progress in policy development and implementation around healthy ageing, WHO’s regional office wrote in the report Assessing the impact of Covid-19 on older people in the African Region.

It has already resulted in disinvestment in older people's care to some extent and can have long-term negative consequences on the health, well-being and long-term care of older people.

Countries with collaboration between government ministries and relevant stakeholders had more effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including responses to specific needs of older people, the report stated.

Many older people — Africa has some 62 million of them — participate in agricultural activities and land ownership was higher in this age group. The economic impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns were felt strongly among them in the region. 

The labour force participation was higher among the region’s older people in 2020, particularly those above 65 years. The share was 43 per cent compared to the estimated global average of 20.5 per cent, according to the International Labour Organisation, 2020.

Reduced access to online health services

In some African countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ethiopia, 85-95 per cent older people are uneducated. The levels of educational attainment are significantly lower among women across the region even in countries like South Africa, Namibia, Ghana and Zambia, where overall levels of educational attainment are higher. 

Low levels of education among older people made it harder for them to access accurate information about COVID-19, according to WHO. The older, unlettered people found it challenging to understand how to protect themselves from the disease by seeking health and social assistance they require or access services online, the paper noted.

South Africa recorded the highest COVID-19 mortality in the African region. The country had almost 1.6 million cases and 54,825 COVID-19 deaths as of May 10, 2021. People over 60 accounted for well over half the official toll at the time. 

In South Africa, where 48.7 per cent of households had internet access in 2016, only 5.4 per cent of internet users (not including mobile device connections) were over the age of 60, the report showed. The digital divide also prevented older people from using telehealth services to access care.

The report made the following recommendations:

  • Coordination of responses to COVID-19 and any future pandemic
  • Development and implementation of policy related to ageing
  • Increased funding and technical support for healthy ageing
  • Person-centred healthcare for older persons and a life-course approach to health systems
  • Long-term care 
  • Promoting mental health and physical well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Social and economic inclusion post-COVID

While people in Africa are living longer than in the past, they are not necessarily in better health. The African region lags behind other regions in terms of the health and well being of older people. 

In terms of absolute population numbers, Africa has the largest population of older people in the world. In 2020, 74.4 million individuals aged 60 and older were estimated to be living in the continent, 54.3 million of whom were in sub-Saharan Africa. 

On January 31, 2016, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons which has had only 17 signatories of the 55 member states. As of July 2020, only three countries have ratified the protocol. 

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