Last week, HelpAge International Asia Pacific Regional Office, with support from the Asian Development Bank, hosted a webinar titled: ‘“Building back better” in post-pandemic Asia: Back to the future for older people?’.
As a result of the pandemic, the global economy has experienced its deepest recession since World War II, and inequality has increased. The pandemic has also triggered a broader reflection on how to build a better world for future generations. It is commonly said that the crisis presents an opportunity to “build back better”. This webinar aimed to present some concrete transformations that could help do just that for older people in a post-pandemic Asia.
The panel, moderated by John Beard, Professor of ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), at the University of New South Wales, explored the potential “green shoots” of change that are already appearing, and the practical actions that institutions and governments could put in place to ensure that decision-makers harness the momentum of change catalysed by the pandemic.
All participants agreed that older persons have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, particularly due to the isolation and loneliness that has occurred as a result. Mary Ann Tsao, Chairwoman and founding director of the Tsao Foundation, raised the issue that in Asia there is a real stigma in talking about mental health issues, with 55 per cent of older persons suffering from isolation in Singapore even before the pandemic. Tsoa suggested that COVID-19 is forcing us to recognise these issues and tackle them. Aiko Kikkawa Takenaka, an economist in ADB’s Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department, further highlighted how important innovations in technology have helped us to communicate and support each other in new ways. Takenka and Tsoa both spoke of the digital divide that exists in preventing older persons from accessing these networks and suggested developing technologies that can empower them.
Pungky Sumadi, Indonesia’s Deputy Minister for Population and Employment at the Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) and Sarah Harper, Clore Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford, highlighted the effectiveness of grassroots organisations in supporting older populations during the crisis. Harper further suggested a move towards rebuilding our communities in a non-ageist framework, and that there is a need for intergenerational integrated communities.
Stephen Kidd, Principal Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways, proposed that making changes on a national level through providing adequate pensions and social security for all citizens would be a transformative practical action that could be taken to “build back better” for older people. Kidd stated that evidence shows that universal pension coverage would boost economic recovery and prove to be politically advantageous as they are often popular policies that win elections.
COVID-19 has highlighted our strengths and weaknesses in supporting our communities. What was clear from the panel was that support systems for older people require more research to ascertain not only what they need, but what they want going forward. Only then will transformational change be achieved.