The covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the aging of the world’s population. This pandemic is the first to occur since there are more people over 65 than under five in the world; and the lethality of covid-19 grows rapidly with age.
The intersection of the pandemic with this new demographic reality has exposed a gap in our global governance architecture. There is no international institution specifically responsible for protecting the rights and promoting the interests of the fastest growing age group: people over 65. This institutional gap contributed to the lack of a unified global response to the pandemic, which also affects disproportionately to this population group. Inconsistent vaccine deployments are the most obvious test, but there are many other dimensions of vulnerability. For example, in low-income countries, 46% of people 65 and older continue to work and are rarely a political priority.
Other population groups have not suffered the same neglect. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) addresses the needs and rights of children; UN Women promotes gender equality and female empowerment; the United Nations Population Fund focuses on sexual and reproductive health issues; and the International Labor Organization oversees labor regulations and conditions for workers. But there is no organization focused on the older population. Older people are implicitly included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)But the lack of an explicit emphasis on them, combined with demographic changes, makes them a growing proportion of the world’s most vulnerable population.
To see the difference that creating an institution focused on older people would make, just think about what UNICEF has done for children. Since 1990, the infant mortality rate has fallen by almost 60%; And while this enormous improvement has been the result of many factors, Unicef’s work (coupled with vaccination and sanitation programs) is one of the most important.
The reasons for the current lack of a senior-centered institution are historical. The structure of the world’s population was very different when the United Nations and the World Health Organization were created in the 1940s. In 1950, there were about seven times as many children under the age of fifteen as there were people over 65. But by 2050, the two age groups will be roughly equal, and there will be 1.5 billion people over 65 (almost twice the number of children who are over 65). there was when the UN and the WHO were created).
The world was generally ill-prepared for the covid-19 pandemic; cannot afford to be ill-prepared for the foreseeable increase in age-related illnesses
To remedy this failure in global governance, two initiatives are needed: one UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, which provides a framework for responding to economic and social inequalities and vulnerabilities, and an international body, for example a UN Program for Older Persons. In many of its activities, this body would be a copy of Unicef, whose example would also follow in protecting the most vulnerable people and responding to abuse and exploitation.
It is clear that a priority will have to be health, an area in which the needs are great and the shortcomings, considerable. The world was generally ill-prepared for the covid-19 pandemic. You cannot afford to be ill-prepared for the foreseeable increase in age-related illnesses that will occur as a result of never-before-seen but highly probable demographic changes.
Unfortunately, there are three misunderstandings that prevent the international community from rectifying this institutional failure. First, aging populations are often thought to be a problem especially in wealthy nations. But, although the proportion of people over 60 is higher in high-income countries, in absolute terms, most of those people live in low- and middle-income countries. The figures for this age group are: 308 million people in high-income countries, 322 million in low- and lower-middle-income countries, and 419 million in upper-middle-income countries.
The second misunderstanding derives from this idea: that countries where the population is predominantly young do not have to worry about population aging. Quite the opposite. World life expectancy increased from 34 to 73 years between 1913 and 2019; Thus, it is not enough to meet the needs of older people today, we must ensure that those of the future are as healthy and productive as possible.
This vision of the future makes evident the third misunderstanding, which consists of not analyzing aging from a life stage point of view. Healthy aging means paying attention to every stage of life, from prenatal to end-of-life care. Since today’s youth will have longer lives, a life-stage analysis is necessary to ensure intergenerational justice and avoid the risk of an accumulation of inequalities throughout life.
Although the program that we propose would be aimed at promoting the rights of the elderly, and in particular the most vulnerable, the benefits can be much more general. The public health improvements of the past favored economic growth, and it is reasonable to assume that the same will happen as the health of the older population improves. Today, people aged 55 and over make up one sixth of the global workforce, and all indications are that this proportion will increase. So an older-centered agenda can also generate macroeconomic benefits.
The growth of the older population and the increase in the life expectancy of young people means that, in many countries, the social safety net is underdeveloped. This deficiency at the national level is one more reason to have a world body charged with promoting the use of best practices in the area.
So that the global institutional architecture does not exclude anyone, it must be adapted to changes in the demographic structure, and this requires an explicit expansion of the powers of the UN.
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