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“Unacceptable” – UN expert urges better protection of older persons facing the highest risk of the COVID-19 pandemic

27 March 2020


GENEVA (27 March 2020) – Society has a duty to exercise solidarity and better protect older persons who are bearing the lion's share of the COVID-19 pandemic, a UN human rights expert said.

"Reports of abandoned older persons in care homes or of dead corpses found in nursing homes are alarming. This is unacceptable," said Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons. "We all have the obligation to exercise solidarity and protect older persons from such harm."

Older persons do not only face a disproportionate risk of death but they are further threatened by COVID-19 due to their care support needs or by living in high-risk environments such as institutions, the expert said.

Kornfeld-Matte expressed particular concerns about older persons with underlying health conditions and those who are already socially excluded, living in poverty, having limited access to health services, or living in confined spaces such as prisons and residential care homes.

"This social exclusion is exacerbated by 'social' distancing measures, such as denying visitors to residential care homes. Social distancing must not become social exclusion," the expert said.

"Physical distance is crucial but creative and safe ways must be found to increase social connections. Older persons must be provided with ways to stay in touch online, including those in residential care homes and remote areas," she urged.

The Independent Expert noted that older persons are already facing particular old age discrimination ("ageism") and therefore require specific rights protection. She stressed the urgent need for a holistic human rights approach for older persons that ensures equal realization of all their rights, including access to health care.

"I am deeply concerned that decisions around the allocation of scarce medical resources such as ventilators in intensive care units may be made solely on the basis of age, denying older persons their right to health and life on an equal basis with others.

"Triage protocols must be developed and followed to ensure such decisions are made on the basis of medical needs, the best scientific evidence available and not on non-medical criteria such as age or disability.

"Older persons have become highly visible in the COVID 19 outbreak but their voices, opinions and concerns have not been heard. Instead, the deep-rooted ageism in our societies has become even more apparent. We have seen this in some cruel and dehumanizing language on social media and in the exclusive emphasis on older persons' vulnerability ignoring their autonomy," Kornfeld-Matte said.

She finally called on all stakeholders to ensure that essential support services at home in the communities can continue without putting older persons and their care providers at risk. "Communities and generations must come together to get through this crisis in solidarity," the UN expert concluded.


Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte (Chile) was appointed by Human Rights Council as the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May 2014. Ms Kornfeld-Matte served as the National Director of the Chilean National Service of Ageing, where she designed and implemented the National Policy of Ageing. She has a long career as an academic and is the founder of the programme for older persons at the Pontificia Unversidad Católica de Chile.


The Independent Expert's appeal has been endorsed by the following UN experts:

Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women; Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity; Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation; Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence; Alioune Tine, Independent Expert on the situation of Human Rights in Mali; Obiora Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; Aristide Nononsi, Independent Expert on the situation of Human Rights in Sudan; David R. Boyd Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; Ahmed Reid (Chair), Dominique Day, Michal  Balcerzak, Ricardo A. Sunga III, and Sabelo Gumedze, Working Group of experts on people of African descent; Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development; Livingstone Sewanyanan, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order;Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar; Yao Agbetse, Independent Expert on the situation of Human Rights in the Central African Republic; S. Michael Lynkthe, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967; Alice Cruz, Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members ; Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; Ikponwosa Ero Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism; ; Githu Muigai (Chair), Anita Ramasastry (Vice-chair), Dante Pesce, Elzbieta Karska, and Surya Deva, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises;Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders ; Diego García-Sayán,Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers; Luciano A. Hazan (Chair), Tae-Ung Baik (Vice-chair), Houria Es-Slami, Henrikas Mickevičius, Bernard Duhaime, Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Mr. Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky , Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights ; Ms Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions ; Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes ; Ms. Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children ; Mr Felipe González Morales; the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences ; Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education ; Mr. Chris Kwaja (Chair), Ms. Jelena Aparac, Ms. Lilian Bobea, Ms. Sorcha MacLeod and Mr. Saeed Mokbil, Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination; Mr. Bahame Tom Mukirya Nyanduga, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia ; Ms. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

For further information and media requests, please contact: Khaled Hassine (+41 22 917 93 67, [email protected] ), or write to [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact: Xabier Celaya, (+ 41 22 917 9445 / [email protected] )

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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