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Do Australia’s COVID-19 policies reflect ageism?

Introduction by Croakey: More than 3,000 Australians residing in aged care facilities have died with COVID-19, the great majority of them this year.

Independent MP Rebekha Sharkie has called for more scrutiny and critique of the Labor Government’s handling of the pandemic since the election in May.

Below, Dr Aletha Ward and Tracey Tulleners, PhD candidate and lecturer, both in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at University of Southern Queensland, discuss the impact of Australia’s COVID-19 policies on older Australians, particularly those in aged care.

“Is Australia’s COVID-19 policy response driven by ageism?” they ask.

Ward and Tulleners share strong calls for “intergenerational solidarity” in COVID-19 responses and future pandemic policies to be driven by consultation with older Australians.


Aletha Ward and Tracey Tulleners write:

Whilst Australia has now passed the third wave of COVID-19 and we transition back towards ‘COVID normal,’ the death rate is still consistently above 50 per day.

Despite more people dying from the virus in 2022 than in 2020 and 2021 combined, the media has pulled back focus and coverage on case numbers and the Federal Government is encouraging Australians to live with ‘a new normal’.

The state and federal governments are rapidly winding back COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates and last week the National Cabinet decreased the isolation period for those with no symptoms to five days (with some exceptions).

Many have stated that the Government’s response is reflective of ‘pandemic fatigue’ – however, could this response actually be reflective of the underlying culture of ageism in Australia?

From the beginning of the pandemic, older Australians have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. Of the 14,199 deaths that have occurred in Australia, the vast majority of those deaths have impacted the over 60 years age group.

Aged care sector

The aged care sector overwhelmingly has borne the brunt of COVID-19 waves with 30 percent of the COVID-19 deaths recorded occurring within the sector. Currently 1,779 aged care residents in Australia have an active COVID-19 infection.

Lack of systemic preparedness in vaccinations, and response to outbreaks has been evident in the aged care setting despite early indications in the pandemic that aged care residents are some of the most vulnerable to the health impacts of COVID-19.

The World Health Organization states that ageism is pervasive, positing that half of people in society are ‘ageist’. As ageism is insidious, it is often difficult to clearly identify how this drives the policy response within the pandemic.

Traditionally, Australia, like many developed countries, has a reputation for seeing age as a deficit and often seeing older people as ‘expendable’. Culturally, Western society believes it is ‘less tragic’ when older people die from disease than younger people.

Agesim in Australia further undermines the rich history of First Nations people and esteemed roles of Elders as important holders of knowledge.

Ageism perpetuates the belief that the impact of deaths from COVID-19 is not as serious. This in turn drives policy responses from our governments that is more socially acceptable to younger Australians within an ageist paradigm.

The history of ageism in healthcare and government response is evidenced by the Royal Commission on Aged Care Quality and Safety which heard that ageism and stereotyped beliefs of older people has contributed to neglect and abuse experienced by residents in the aged care sector.

Concerns about the quality of food, use of chemical and physical restraints and staffing ratios in the aged care system have been intractably linked to ageism in the provision of healthcare for older Australians.

Inequitable policies?

The continuing inequitable health outcomes from ageism is, however, not confined to the aged care sector and is demonstrated more broadly in Federal Government policy.

The Australian EveryAGE Counts coalition states that not only are older Australians more susceptible to COVID-19 diseases impacts, they also shoulder a disproportionate economic impact from the pandemic.

Housing, food and casual work insecurity has been perpetuated by economic adjustments experienced by the pandemic. As a population who already experience social disadvantage, with more than 20 percent of older people living in poverty, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states that people from lower socio-economic areas are three times more likely to die from COVID-19.

However, government policy has not responded by lifting the socio-economic status of older Australians, but rather by implementing ‘protective’ policy measures such as imposing mask mandates in hospitals and aged care facilities.

Some of the policy responses in Australia to limit the spread of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting older people, further perpetuating their isolation. Historically, policy in Australia is founded on the premise that the government knows what is best for its citizens.

Older people who are ‘vulnerable’ are advised to stay home, wear a mask and limit exposure to high-risk settings. Most other Australians are, however, being informed they can wind back mask wearing measures, and vaccination mandates are only considered in ‘high risk’ environments such as aged care.

Are these policies equitable for all?

When considering what personal measures we must implement, the community must respond with intergenerational solidarity when considering their individual choices to isolate when sick, wear masks when they cannot socially distance and maintain vaccination status.

Furthermore, the state, territory and Commonwealth governments must design policy driven by the consultation with older Australians rather than driving a policy agenda that further socially and culturally ostracises vulnerable older Australians.


Read Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on COVID-19.

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