Covid-19: Why social distancing is a big worry for senior citizens

A survey by HelpAge India estimates that about 6% of senior citizens in India live alone. Loneliness among elders is a problem that cuts across classes and is a challenge in cities as well. He estimates that 10-20% of senior citizens in India are suffering from loneliness, a condition likely to be exacerbated by the current curbs on movement and contact due to the pandemic.

Inder Mohan Bhalla can barely contain his agitation when he talks about where the nationwide lockdown leaves the country’s senior citizens. The 75-year-old national president of All India Senior Citizens’ Confederation clarifies that while he is healthy, owns a vehicle and lives with his son in Hyderabad, similar comforts are not common among most of the country’s population above 60 years. As the spokesperson of a 2.2 million-strong organization representing them, Bhalla is outraged that the lockdown has not made provisions for the elderly who are living alone. “What happens to those who are over 80 years of age and cannot step out to buy essential goods? Without autos or cabs, how will even those who are able to leave their house be able to go and get their medicines?”

Bhalla’s agitation is not misplaced. In some ways, the whole world is united in the fight against Covid-19. But the reality is that some are more vulnerable to infection than others. And senior citizens would easily top that list. The World Health Organization has said that “older age and underlying conditions increase the risk for severe infection”. Experts surmise that one of the reasons why Italy, which has seen the highest number of deaths due to the virus, was hit so hard is that almost 23% of its population is over the age of 65.

But it is not just the heightened risk of infection the elderly are anxious about. The mandatory preventive measure of social distancing comes with its own challenges for this section of the population, many of whom are already struggling with loneliness, restricted mobility and lack of financial security.

Senior citizens make up about 9% of India’s population, according to the last Census. “About half of them, around 53 million, is very poor,” says Mathew Cherian, CEO of non-profit entity HelpAge India.