Tens of millions of Chinese being able to hit the road over the May Day holiday is a testament to the country’s success in its ongoing battle with the novel coronavirus. Although overall travel remained 40% lower than the previous year, residents took more than 115 million trips over the five-day vacation: a promising sign for the country’s devastated tourism industry.
Tourism and health officials across China have spent weeks reassuring members of the public that it’s safe to go out and resume spending — with one notable exception. A week before the holiday, an official with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned seniors, a high-risk group, to avoid travel altogether.
“Ageism” refers to prejudice or discrimination against individuals on the basis of their chronological age. Although the China CDC’s recommendation may have been well intentioned, it reinforced the stereotype that older people are more susceptible to COVID-19. Yes, seniors are more likely, as a consequence of the natural aging process, to have preexisting conditions or less robust immune systems, but this is hardly true of every older person, and age-based restrictions cast too wide a net. A Chinese study found that COVID-19 was 60% more fatal to men than women, yet it’s hard to imagine public health professionals ordering all men to stay indoors for their own safety.
If anything, ageist prescriptions only make matters worse. For years, older people have been burdened with labels like “frail,” “helpless,” and “unable to contribute to society.” Seniors often internalize the structural ageism they encounter through policies and in public, compounding their feelings of inadequacy. Their resulting anxiety can have real-life health effects: Researchers have found structural and individual ageism can have a lasting negative impact on the well-being of the seniors impacted.
Forcing people over a certain age to stay home is not the only manifestation of ageism in the current crisis. So-called health codes, now mandatory in many public places, require a smartphone and knowledge of at least one major app. That’s a high bar for older people with poor digital literacy — some of whom haven’t even heard of the codes.
Just 5% of Chinese over the age of 60 use the internet on a regular basis. Given how vital the internet was at the peak of the epidemic, when it was the primary means of doing everything from buying groceries to socializing, those unused to the technology faced an elevated risk of food shortages and potential difficulties in getting medical assistance.
The isolation faced by the digitally challenged also posed health risks that, if not quite as dire as COVID-19, were no less real. Studies have shown that a decline in physical activity — a common consequence of long-term lockdowns — can be detrimental to older people’s physical health. Without access to entertainment younger generations took for granted during their quarantines — such as social media or online gaming — they were more likely to feel the attendant loneliness. Compounding the issue, the lockdowns began just ahead of the Lunar New Year, which for many seniors is the only time of the year they can see their relatives and extended families.
It’s a well-worn trope that older persons enjoy a higher social status in China than in Western countries. But the truth is, the country’s one-child policy has posed unprecedented challenges to China’s family-based elder care model, in which younger generations are expected to care for their parents and grandparents. The resulting prejudices and conflicts often boil down to a perceived intergenerational competition over resources.
Meanwhile, China, like modern, commercialized societies around the world, produces and markets products in ways that prioritize and flatter young people. As a result, Chinese increasingly see old age as something to fear or a source of embarrassment. It’s become common to be self-conscious about markers of advancing age and to avoid anything considered “old.” Policymakers, product designers, and journalists all relegate older people to invisible background pieces.
The problem is, not getting old isn’t an option. Unlike sexism and racism, anyone could be a victim of ageism. If nothing changes, all of us will one day be subject to the same prejudices and marginalization we subject seniors to today.
Many older people are indeed vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet, preexisting conditions aside, the real risk isn’t the coronavirus per se; it’s the accumulation of social disadvantages exacerbated by ageism. Discussions about our post-coronavirus future have tended to center on “getting back to normal,” but this is one area where we should reconsider what “normal” looks like. It’s time to listen to the voices of our forgotten older people and revisit how we treat them.
With the battle against the coronavirus unlikely to end anytime soon, it’s important to look at the strengths and vulnerabilities of our seniors in an unbiased way, and to respect and protect them. After all, how we treat our older people is how we treat our future selves.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Kim Kyung-Hoon/People Visual)