In telling the over-70s to stay at home the government is recognising vulnerability, but refusing to consider how that vulnerability is produced.
One of the many consequences of the Covid-19 Pandemic is that a whole group of the population, those over 70, have been labelled as vulnerable. Now as sociologists know ‘labelling’ carries with it some heavy baggage: it defines people and uses that definition to implement distinct practices towards them. It is a great surprise for many people over 70 (and I include myself) to find ourselves in this new category. I am not supposed to leave my house, except for specific reasons and I am told, less by the government but certainly by friends and neighbours to be aware, very aware, of every inter-action with the outside world. On the day that I first wiped down the Guardian I realised that I was entering a new world.
But this new condition is very much not funny, although we might do slightly absurd things because of it. It is very much not funny because it brings home to us that the majority of the old are vulnerable because they have not been, and are not being, properly cared for. The shocking deaths in care homes of both staff and residents makes the point most dramatically. Yes, those people are over 70 but they are also people who are likely to have had little chance in their adult lives to safeguard their health; those much vaunted ‘underlying health issues’ are all too often the result of lives of material hardship, in which access to medical care, healthy diets and the leisure time for exercise have been all too limited. The products of the industries that are designed to ensure endless youth and vitality are generally expensive and beyond the reach of large sections of the population. Austerity has closed parks, public playgrounds and halted the building of new communal facilities such as swimming pools; exercise now all too often has to take place in run-for-profit gyms. Staying young and youthful has been a cultural obsession since the beginning of the twentieth century yet governments have seldom instigated the kinds of policies that might have made this a general aspiration or possibility. Yes, we have been told not to smoke, drink too much alcohol or eat sugary food, but these campaigns – with the exception of that on smoking – have made little impact on the population of the UK. Those much used comparisons of longevity between certain postcodes all demonstrate that poverty shortens your life.
So in telling the over 70s to stay at home the government is recognising vulnerability, but refusing to consider how that vulnerability is produced. All those in older populations face the same physical limitations of ageing; we all become less able physically and often mentally. But the question of why these conditions are more apparent, and more threatening, in some people rather than others is also a social question that we should be asking and asking with some urgency. We should also be questioning an aspect of current government policy which entirely contradicts the idea that older people should be excluded from the social world: that of ages for retirement and eligibility for pensions. At the time of writing this the age at which men and women can begin to collect state pensions has been rising in the past ten years. It is, again, a socially illiterate policy, given that for many people who have been employed in jobs that are in various ways physically demanding, it may be impossible to continue to work until these older ages. To refuse people who may have worked (and paid taxes and national insurance) for over forty years any semblance of a period of retirement is a highly regressive step for any welfare system.
The old are not, we have to remember, those well-dressed white people in the Saga advertisements. A minority may be, but a greater majority are those who encounter various forms of prejudice and material hardship. The way in which the state is now expressing concern for their welfare through policies of separation and social exclusion has its obvious strengths in that it makes infection less likely, but there is little evidence that there is any consideration of the overall condition of old age in the contemporary United Kingdom. Those who work and live in care homes have been exposed to deadly hazards. Advice, PPE, money to support extra staff, coherent oversight and regulation of the sector have all been lacking or inadequate. For long before the Covid crisis the press regularly reported abuse and mis-management in care homes: the absence of any comprehensive response to these instances remains a national scandal. At present there are national forms of mourning for those elderly people who have died of Covid -19. But it is not difficult to consider another picture: that the old, and particularly the materially and physically vulnerable old, have been regarded, with their carers, as little other than an inconvenient cost.
Mary Evans has taught/ written about and generally been engaged with questions of different aspects of social inequality for five decades. Her writing includes work on feminist theory, Jane Austen and Simone de Beauvoir, although most recently she has been particularly interested in the ways in which forms of social dissent , austerity and marginalisation are discussed both in fiction and non-fiction. Hence her most recent work, with Sarah Moore and Hazel Johnstone, Detecting the Social. A new book, on the making of the ‘respectability’ of women will be published later this year.