A small number of countries around the world have used age as a barrier in setting guidance for their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The UAE when it began reopening malls a few weeks ago, and restaurants and cinemas, with limited capacity, prohibited people 60 and over and children other than teenagers from entering these establishments. They are also banned from stand-along stores and supermarkets, and gyms - even in their own residential complexes.
While the country's malls are now returning to 100% capacity, the ban on older and younger people remains in force.
At Jumeirah Beach Residence which is home to more than 40 apartment towers, a dozen international hotels, a retail strip known as The Walk and a beachfront shopping mall known as The Beach, only people aged 13 to 59 are allowed. At each end of the precinct there is a large sign which includes the statement: Seniors (60 years and above) are not allowed. Kids under 12 are not allowed. Above the statement is a symbolic sketch of a stooped over elderly man and woman, each with a cane, and alongside it, a sketch of two pre-teen children.
Restaurants and even fast food outlets on the strip, including Kentucky Fried Children and Burger King have signs saying 'elderly' people over 60 and children under 12 'are not allowed.'
In the UK a few weeks ago, the British government was believed to be considering ordering people 70 and over to stay in their homes at all times.
Health Minister Lord James Bethell when asked whether this was being considered refused to answer.
"I was very concerned by the government's refusal to answer my question," Lord David Blunkett, the former home secretary said at the time. "Older people must not be subjected to arbitrary incarceration as well as isolation."
"The more the government make restrictions age-related rather than risk-related, the more they risk people pushing back very heavily and refusing to keep to the rules," he said.
Ros Altmann, the former pension minister, was quoted by The Guardian as saying: "I have real fears that ministers are considering blanket bans to prevent older people leaving their homes during the current crisis. Ministerial responses suggest government advisers may be seriously recommending using chronological age as a criterion for deciding whether people will be allowed to leave their homes."
"Such policies are normally the mark of authoritarian regimes, not a mature democracy. Collective punishment based on age should be no more acceptable than using gender, ethnicity or body mass index as defining factors," Altmann said.
"Blaming the virus is not a valid justification. These are conscious policy decisions. Isolating all older people, if others are allowed out, it also risks damaging their physical and mental health."
Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about imposing unilateral restrictions on older people. Governments should respect the rights of older people in their response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the organization said in a statement released in April.
"Older people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and many governments are racing to respond," Bethany Brown, researcher on older people's rights at HRW said. "But older people face risks to their rights as well if governments do not take their specific experiences into account and do not actively combat age discrimination."
In addition to the greater risk of severe illness and death from the virus, discriminatory attitudes and actions threaten older people's rights. A UK newspaper opinion piece about the economic impact of the coronavirus said that the death of older people could actually be beneficial by "culling elderly dependents." In a March 22 interview, Ukraine's former health minister said people over 65 are already "corpses" and the government should focus its COVID-19 efforts on people "who are still alive."
The Texas lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, suggested that older people might be willing to sacrifice themselves to benefit the economy: "My message is that let's get back to work," Patrick, 69, said on a national television program on March 23. "Let's get back to living. Let's be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we'll take care of ourselves, but don't sacrifice the country."
Some governments have placed severe restrictions on freedom of movement based on age, forcing older people to remain confined in their homes or face fines or other penalties, Human Rights Watch said.
As one example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for several weeks people over 65 were not allowed to go outside, with no exceptions for grocery shopping, pharmacy visits, or even taking out the garbage. Over 200 older people were fined. On April 3, the government revised the rule to allow older people to go out between 7:00am and noon, Monday through Friday.
Older people who find themselves unexpectedly alone without control over their circumstances are at particular risk for a variety of severe, even life-threatening, physical and mental health conditions, including cognitive decline. Restrictions on freedom of movement should be proportionate and not based exclusively on age, the HRW statement said.
Governments should address the risks of social isolation while ensuring health needs during "social distancing."
The U.S. government, to try to counter the COVID-19 risks facing older people in nursing facilities, announced a "no visitors" policy. Some Australian facilities are following this lead beyond the Australian government's public health guidance, which limits visitors to a maximum of two people per visit, requires the visits to be of short duration, and has guidelines on hygiene and physical distancing.
"Governments should not respond to threats to older people's health with threats to their rights," Brown said. "We are all at risk if government responses to this epidemic reinforce ageist attitudes and ignore older people's equal rights."
The United Nations has also stressed the need to avoid discrimination of older people.
"Our response to COVID-19 must respect the rights and dignity of older people", Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month in launching a UN report on the 'challenges faced by the elderly, during and after the biggest public health crisis to hit the world in a century.'
"To get through this pandemic together, we need a surge in global and national solidarity and the contributions of all members of society, including older people" he asserted.
"As we look to recover better, we will need ambition and vision to build more inclusive, sustainable and age-friendly societies that are fit for the future", said the UN Secretary-General.