COVID-19: Africa’s elderly may benefit from social structures

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  • Africa’s older population may be less vulnerable because of community structure
  • In Western nations, older people bear the brunt of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic
  • Each setting should develop context-relevant policies to halt the pandemic

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[NAIROBI] As coronavirus continue to spread globally, Africa’s older population of over 60 may be less vulnerable because of community structure, a scientist says.

According to Marianne Mureithi, a lecturer at the Department of Medical Microbiology at Kenya’s University of Nairobi, the elderly play important of roles such as being elders and gatekeepers in the community and Africa has not neglected older adults.

She is attributing the high rate of Coronavirus infection among the old in Western countries to, among others, overcrowded nursing homes or similar facilities for housing older people.

In an editorial published in the BMJ this month (13 March), scientists say that because African countries have relatively young populations, the needs of people over 60 years old are frequently neglected, adding that increased age leads to reduced immunity and a higher chances of having underlying medical conditions including diabetes and lung diseases.

“Our older folks play such a pivotal role in the community. They are accorded great respect and are not entirely neglected.”

Marianne Mureithi, University of Nairobi

But throughout most of the developing world, according to a study, giving support for older people is still primarily a family responsibility: “Traditionally, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the primary source of support has been the household and family, supplemented in many cases by other informal mechanisms, such as kinship networks and mutual aid societies”.
In Africa, social protection for the vulnerable is the natural outcome of commonly shared principles of solidarity, reciprocity, and redistribution in an extended family.
“We really do not send our older folks to nursing homes,” explains Mureithi. “It is not a norm as seen in Western countries and our older folks play such a pivotal role in the community as we regard them as elders and gatekeepers of the general community structure, and hence they are accorded great respect and are not entirely neglected.”
Citing Kenya as an example, she tells SciDev.Net that there is a directive from the government to especially protect older people by not taking children from the city to go and stay with them in the villages during this pandemic.

In the BMJ editorial scientists are arguing that in the low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) the elderly will be disproportionately affected by coronavirus, making the need for policies focusing on them urgent.

“Given budgetary constraints in LMICs and the high burden of disease, the needs of younger populations such as mothers and children…are given priority,” says Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, a co-author of the editorial and professor of social policy and international development at the UK-based University of East Anglia.

He tells SciDev.Net that older people in LMICs have complex health and social needs. Healthcare services are poorly equipped to deal with older persons’ health needs. There is a shortage of geriatric expertise and insufficient time to give older people the attention they need.

But Christian Happi, director of African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, says he is not sure much older people in Africa are ignored.
“Although Africa may not have the physical infrastructure to deal with COVID-19 outbreak, African countries have more experience in dealing with disease outbreaks,” he says.
Happi, a professor of molecular biology at Redeemer’s University, Nigeria, adds that, “Most African countries are often in outbreak response mode. There is just a need for better coordination and resource mobilisation on the continent.”

Kevin Marsh, senior advisor for the African Academy of Sciences, tells SciDev.Net that the whole situation is so unprecedented that many countries, and not just LMICs, are struggling to develop policies to fight the pandemic.

“Each setting will have to develop context-relevant approaches to social distancing for the most vulnerable,” says Marsh. “This will be very challenging.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Peter Lloyd-Sherlock  and others Bearing the brunt of covid-19: older people in low and middle income countries (BMJ, 13 March 2020)