COVID, war and older people in Ukraine.
Ukraine has a large older population: over 10 million people aged 60 or more, roughly a quarter of the total population. Over the past two years, the country has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with well over 100,000 deaths, the vast majority among older people. Ukraine has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination coverage in Europe. By the end of 2021, around 70 per cent of people aged 60 or more were yet to receive a single dose.
On 2 March 2022 the Director General of WHO stated that the new war in Ukraine would exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. Shortages of oxygen supplies increase the risk of death for people with severe COVID-19 symptoms, most of whom would struggle to reach a health facility anyway. Almost all older Ukrainians have other chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and these require continuous access to treatment and medication. Stress, lack of sleep and exposure to extreme cold (as power supplies fail) will take a particularly heavy toll on the older population.
Ukrainian men aged 60 or more are exempt from the current emergency conscription. In theory, this might mean they could join the hordes of women and children escaping the country as best they can. But for those older Ukrainians who were already frail and with limited mobility, the risks and hardships of refugee flight are huge. These challenges were evident in the refugee crises generated by Ukraine’s previous conflict with Russia. A 2020 UNHCR report noted that half of internally-displaced people in Ukraine were aged 60 or more, calling it the world’s “oldest humanitarian crises”.
Partly due to the dangers facing by older refugees, there is emerging evidence that many older people are opting to remain in their home cities. Beyond the obvious dangers of the conflict, these left-behind older people face a bleak and difficult future. During the previous conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the International Organisation of Migration referred to the vulnerability of large numbers of isolated older women and men, and to the particular plight of the many older people who live in long-term care facilities.
In 2021 UNHCR published guidance on working with older persons in forced displacement, which refers to the following particular needs:
• food rations that are easy to chew and digest and meet additional protein and micro-nutrient requirements
• extra blankets
• washable or disposable diapers and sanitary napkins for incontinence.
To date, spontaneous donations appear to be focussing on the needs of babies and young children rather than on older people. Without neglecting the needs of younger people, the greater numbers of highly vulnerable older Ukrainians means that for every baby nappy donated, at least three adult incontinence pads will be needed.
Many humanitarian organisations have launched campaigns in response to the unfolding crisis. If you would like to make a donation to a charity that specialises on providing humanitarian assistance to older people, consider Age International which is part of the HelpAge International network. You can access their funding page here: https://www.ageinternational.org.uk/donation/donate/#step1 or, if you live in the UK, can donate by phone on 0800 032 0699.