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Infectious Diseases

Updated 22 July 2020

Despite risks, many elderly people not complying with Covid-19 preventative measures

People over the age of 65 are at high risk of severe illness from Covid-19, and what's more, many are not complying with public health preventative measures.

  • Elderly and people with underlying illnesses are vulnerable to severe Covid-19
  • Despite this, a new survey found that they do not always follow preventative measures
  • This is of particular concern as lockdown measures are being relaxed worldwide

While everyone is at risk of getting Covid-19 if exposed to the virus, those over the age of 65; people with comorbidities such as hypertension and diabetes; as well as people who are immune compromised are more vulnerable to severe illness.

In spite of this risk, older adults do not appear to be complying with most public health preventative measures. This is according to survey results from 27 countries, carried out by Jean-François Daoust of the University of Edinburgh, UK. The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE earlier this month.

What participants were asked

Since the early stages of the pandemic, public health agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stressed the increased risk among certain groups of being hospitalised; needing intensive care or ventilation; or even dying.

According to the WHO: “Older people, and people of all ages with pre-existing medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, or cancer) appear to develop serious illness more than others.” 

The recent survey, which is the first in-depth study of the attitudes of elderly people and their compliance with Covid-19 preventative measures, includes responses from 72 417 people of all ages. Daoust examined participants’ responses on their willingness to, among others:

  • Self-isolate (if required)
  • Comply with preventative measures, such as hand-washing and wearing a face mask
  • Cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid small, medium-sized and large-sized social gatherings
  • Avoid touching objects in public, such as elevator buttons

People aged 60 to 80 less compliant

When analysing the results, Daoust found that elderly people aren’t more willing than people in their 50s and 60s to voluntarily self-isolate in the event that they begin to feel sick, or if they’ve been advised to do so by a clinician or health official.

In people between the ages of 60 to 80, it was found that they are less likely than younger age groups to wear a face mask outside their homes. On the other hand, the results show that older people are more likely to avoid public transportation and small gatherings, or having guests over.

“The findings show that the elderly people, i.e. the most vulnerable population, are not systematically more responsive in terms of prospective self-isolation (if they were told to do so) and willingness to isolate. Moreover, they are not more disciplined in terms of compliance with preventative measures, especially wearing a face mask when outside their home.

“This is surprising because it is very reasonable to expect that those who are more likely to be hospitalised and/or die from the Covid-19 will be more disciplined and dutiful,” Daoust wrote, emphasising that people’s compliance is especially important as physical distancing rules are gradually loosened. 

'We should not expose our elderly mothers and fathers to the virus through social visits' 

In a newsletter by President Cyril Ramaphosa this week, great emphasis was placed on the elderly as well as those with comorbidities.

“Sadly, there have been a number of coronavirus outbreaks at old age homes and care centres, resulting in a number of deaths,” Ramaphosa said, adding that the national effort to contain the virus must include special efforts to protect those at greater risk.

“Until we have overcome this pandemic, we all have to play it safe, for ourselves and those around us. Difficult though it may be, we should not expose our elderly mothers and fathers to the virus through social visits. Let us keep in touch with them by phone or video messaging.

“If they live with us, let us ensure we observe proper hygiene at all times by washing and sanitising our hands. Frequently touched surfaces, including equipment used by our parents and grandparents like walkers and canes, should be frequently cleaned,” the President said.