Coronavirus advice for the over-70s ‘ignores Asian families that live together’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that in the coming weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, anyone over the age of 70 is going to have to stay home for ‘extended periods of time’, which could stretch up to months.
He added that people without symptoms would still be able to visit older relatives and friends as long as they stayed two metres away from them.
At the time of writing, most coronavirus-related deaths in the UK have been people aged over 60, and with underlying health conditions.
Critics say blanket statements on isolating the elderly forget that non-white families are more likely to live as an extended unit, and may not be able to isolate away from one another.
In fact, NHS officials have said Muslim families are particularly vulnerable due to their social habits (i.e eating, praying and living together).
Elderly Britons might have to self-isolate for months
In South Asian cultures, it is common for up to three generations to live under one roof.
Dr. Zubaida Haque, deputy director at Runnymede Trust, has expressed concerns about the government’s recommendations.
She said: ‘The government is saying that sometime soon they are going to ask people over age 70 stay to self-isolate at home for an extended/unclear period to protect themselves from coronavirus.
‘How will that work for elderly people who live with other family members?
‘In hundreds of thousands of homes across the country there are not only three generations of family members in the same household, but also less space (including in poorer households where grandparents are also helping out with childcare, etc).
‘Self-isolation (on its own) is not the sole answer to protecting elderly people in these households, so the government and Public Health England needs to give more guidance about protecting elderly and vulnerable members of households in these situations.’
Zubaida is right about the huge numbers of Asians living with the family – 80% of the British South Asian population live with younger people in the household, says research and policy analyst Fahmida Rahman at thinktank Resolution Foundation.
Their figures show that there are currently 27,798,800 households lived in by people over the age of 70 only. Meanwhile, there are just 279,700 South Asian households where 70+-year-olds live by themselves.
Fahmida says: ‘70% of white 70+ households do not have younger people living with them, compared to just 20% of South Asian and 50% of Black African or Caribbean households.
‘The government response to coronavirus takes no account of the way that non-white families are structured and actually risks the lives of elderly people in our communities who live in multigenerational families.’
Self-isolation for someone of such a vulnerable age is difficult for anyone, regardless of race but this government advice may be impossible for elderly ethnic minorities who share small living spaces with members of their family.
Zain, 14, lives with his younger brother, parents, and grandparents in a four-bedroom property.
The government ordered schools to close on Friday, but before this Zain was obliged to come into contact with his entire year group and all the other grades in a borough that so far has eight known cases of COVID-19.
With his grandparents being vulnerable, Zain’s parents decided to pull him out of school a week before the announcement was made.
Zain tells us: ‘I’m not allowed to go out too much in general but now because of the coronavirus I have to stay at home and be tutored instead.
‘I haven’t gone to school for a week because my mum is scared.
‘I also have to stop my grandparents from going out. My granddad keeps wanting to go to the market’.
A bad situation has become even more difficult for families like Zain’s.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, Boris Johnson announced that statutory sick pay would start from day one of illness.
While this would mean an extra £94.25 to those self-isolating and unable to work, it is only available to those earning £118 per week.
This renders two million people – including zero-hours contract workers – ineligible. According to the Budget, people who are ineligible – which also includes self-employed workers – can instead apply for Universal Credit.
Fahmida believes that this policy will have particularly devastating impacts on overstretched BAME working-class families.
‘People who are BAME are more likely to be in lower-paid work so less likely to benefit from the statutory sick pay packages and are also more likely to be in insecure work,’ she explains.
‘This means that they are more likely to be compelled to go into work despite the circumstances and risks to not only them but their families.’
What the government must do, says Zubaida, is take the concerns of Asian families into account when making recommendations.
Few have the resources or means to use separate bathrooms or buy enough food to last a three-generational family for two weeks.
Zubaida adds: ‘I’m not sure what the answer is to elderly isolation other than to say a one size fits all solution is clearly not the whole answer, not for elderly people living in extended households.’