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Germany's ageism pandemic

January 10, 2021

As the pandemic continues, so does the spread of negative stereotypes about older people. A massive number of people are simply being written off — and that, DW's Astrid Prange writes, is misguided and dangerous.

Masked seniors shop in Tübingen
Seniors are as active as ever, but the pandemic has brought out old prejudicesImage: Marek Neumann-Schönwetter/DW

For years, the German philosopher Richard David Precht has called for the introduction of compulsory volunteering for retirees. His argument is that there have never been as many fit and healthy pensioners in Germany as there are today — and that they should do something useful for society. 

Yet, a year after the identification of COVID-19, the general perception of the population aged 60 and over has been turned on its head. All of a sudden, older people are being portrayed as needing protection: as vulnerable and weak. The pandemic has made them victims of discrimination and isolation.

Prange de Oliveira, Astrid
DW's Astrid Prange

But who exactly is protecting whom? The findings of a written survey of just under 5,000 people aged between 46 and 90 conducted in June and July indicate that protections for the so-called vulnerable in society might be well-intended, but they do not always go down well with the people they are meant to help. 

Fewer than 10% of respondents said they felt threatened by the pandemic. The survey shows that health is a more important factor than age when it comes to perceived risk. People who regarded themselves as being in good health felt less threatened than those who did not.

Help 'the aged'

Commissioned by Germany's Family Affairs Ministry, the survey is a positive step. But can it really do anything to prevent a return to old role models that we thought that we had left behind us?

The response to the pandemic has not only brought digital advances and, in some ways, modernized society but has also made it more conservative. During the series of shutdowns, it is women who have been burdened disproportionately with housework and childcare, while fit and healthy retirees are perceived as having mutated again into vulnerable, needy creatures. 

This irrational response is a dangerous side effect of the pandemic. It writes off a huge slice of the population, thereby endangering social cohesion at a particularly critical point in time. 

Contradictory actions

Why are we calling on retired doctors, pharmacists, firefighters, nurses, teachers and police officers to return to the front lines and, in the same breath, declaring everyone over the age of 60 to be in a risk group? And why do we expect a generation that has already contributed so much to building society and creating solidarity to make the biggest sacrifices in terms of putting up with isolation and loneliness?

In an increasingly aging society, it is misleading to refer, in general terms, to "the aged" or "the older generation." These populations do not exist. Much of the help on offer to sick or frail people is being given by people who belong to the generation 60+, in particular, when it comes to taking care of relatives.

And many of them will continue to be key players in society once the pandemic is over. If we class everyone over the age of 65 as weak, senile and vulnerable, then we hurt and devalue an entire generation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to fight the spread of this virus of bias with a vaccine.

Extended lockdown in Germany?

This commentary has been adapted from German.