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AARP CEO: COVID is ‘shining a spotlight’ on the inequities facing older Americans

February 24, 2021, 5:30 PM UTC
People line up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community in Pompano Beach, Fla. “One of the most positive signs I’ve seen emerging from this crisis is the recognition that the generations are connected and do look out for one another,” writes Jo Ann Jenkins.
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At AARP, we’re deeply concerned about the disparities that exist in our society—in health care, economic opportunity, and quality of life—because we believe all people should be empowered to choose how they live as they age. We also know that discrimination of any kind corrodes our communities and our society from the inside out, and that it frays our democracy.  

Global crises like COVID-19 have a way of shining a spotlight on our social shortcomings, especially as they impact the elderly. They help us focus on underlying problems, including isolation, loneliness, lack of affordable, high-quality health care and economic security, and ageism, and bring them to the surface for action.

Just as the Great Depression of the 1930s surfaced the widespread problem of economic insecurity among the elderly in the U.S. and led President Franklin Roosevelt and the Congress to create Social Security in 1935—in the midst of that Great Depression—this pandemic is forcing all of us not only to address immediate needs, but also to think about the longer-term solutions that will help us all live and age better in the future, lessening the impact of future crises. During times like these, people look to their leaders—and to each other—for guidance, support, solutions, and perhaps most importantly, for inspiration and reassurance that we will get through these difficult times.

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is an enormous challenge for everyone, especially older adults and people with underlying health conditions who are the most at risk for COVID-19. More than 500,000 American lives now have been lost due to COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s one out of every 1,000 Americans. Nearly 95% of those who have died were age 50 or over. About 40% have been residents and staff in nursing homes, though nursing home residents are less than 1% of the American population. That’s at least 120,000 lives lost. 

Amid the heartache, loss, and suffering that has spread throughout the world, we have also seen dramatic examples of people coming together to help those in need, to comfort those who mourn losses of loved ones, to aid neighbors and friends, and to care for family members and others who need help in meeting their basic needs. In a strange way, the demands of physical and social distancing have brought many of us closer together. One of the most positive signs I’ve seen emerging from this crisis is the recognition that the generations are connected and do look out for one another. I’m optimistic that we will continue to build on that.

Here in the U.S., COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities where, historically, there has been less opportunity. In the U.S., Blacks and Latinos have been hospitalized and are dying at disproportionately high rates. These disparities are not random, but instead are the result of a long history of inequality, due to a lack of social, economic, and political opportunities. 

Our scientists have developed and continue to develop vaccines with remarkable speed. Now it’s time to put them to good use. Vaccinating the people most likely to wind up in the hospital alleviates burdens on communities’ health care systems. The expected surge in new cases, as well as the new variant we’re hearing about, makes it even more urgent that policymakers get distribution systems working well. A vaccination doesn’t protect only one individual—it’s a key step in protecting all of us. To save lives, federal and state governments need to look at the risks, prioritize those most at risk, get the supply chain working efficiently, and work to get needed vaccines into nursing homes and clinics without further delay. There is no time to waste.

Building equity into the recovery

As we look to the future beyond COVID-19, one area of focus for us is to build equity into the recovery in terms of health, wealth, and aging. We see an opportunity to build on our efforts to address long-standing disparities in health, economic security, and quality of life—and to redouble our efforts to combat racism and ageism. 

We strive to create a society where all people have access to the resources, services, and support that empower them to live a life of dignity, good health, and purpose—regardless of age, race, or income. 

There is an urgent role for everyone in this. That role focuses on what I like to call the “Three P’s,” and while my organization focuses in particular on how they apply to people age 50 and over, they resonate with all groups that face bias.

  • Personal: Individuals have a responsibility to keep themselves employable.
  • Private: Employers have a responsibility to provide opportunities for workers to remain on the job, to learn and to grow, to not limit recruiting, and to implement policies and procedures that are fair and address the needs of all employees, regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnic or economic background.
  • Public: Governments at all levels need to enforce policies against discrimination and bias and create opportunities for job retraining to ensure that workers who lose their jobs get the skills and help they need to find new ones.

As corporate and nonprofit leaders, we need to recognize that diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice are not just social imperatives; they are also business imperatives. They aren’t simply part of our business strategy, they are our business strategy. We must embed these ideals in everything we do, from our policies and procedures to our products and services to our hiring and retention practices.  

We can begin by crafting a diverse and inclusive talent strategy that develops all employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience. We also need to make lifelong learning a priority. Now is the time to double down on learning budgets and commit to reskilling all employees regardless of age or life stage. 

In short, we must match the increasing diversity of and demand for social justice in the marketplace with increased diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workforce and the workplace. To do this, we have to address four priorities:

  • Restore civil discourse so people with differing views can talk to one another in meaningful discussion about the issues that divide us.
  • Break down barriers that limit opportunity and hold people back.
  • Make people aware of and begin to address their hidden biases.
  • Provide equal access to good jobs, financial resources, quality education and quality, affordable health care.

If there is one thing I would like to see come from this global pandemic, it would be that we take advantage of the opportunity we now have to build a more equitable society. 

Echoing the words of Pope Francis, this can be the moment where we use innovation and our entrepreneurial spirit to overcome the disparities that have existed for millions around the world. This can be the moment where we take the critical next step toward providing all people—regardless of their background—the opportunity to live and age with dignity, purpose, and the hope of achieving a healthy and economically secure future.

Jo Ann Jenkins is the CEO of AARP.