The elderly and Cyclone Idai

guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

As we count losses and grieve in the aftermath of the unprecedented recent cyclone tragedy, there is a special group of vulnerable people that seems forgotten. The elderly are usually passed over and neglected in most crises. They are amongst the most affected people in the tragedy and some are unaccounted for.

Elderly people are aged at least 65 and many of them live alone. Despite their rights being protected in the Constitution and the Older Persons Act Chapter 17:11 their plight remains critical, especially during tragedies. They face many problems, chief being health issues, legal problems, debt, poverty, loneliness and neglect. It is incumbent on the Ministry of Social Welfare to do more to craft and implement policies that protect them from abuse and neglect. The State has a duty to make their lives as liveable as possible through instituting practical, legal and social interventions.

It is a serious indictment on the State and society when elderly people sleep in the open and desperately hustle on the streets to make a living. It is a serious failing by the State for not establishing social safety nets to take care of elderly people as prescribed by the law.

The elderly in our society are just left to their own devices, to fade away and die. The vast majority of elderly people in Zimbabwe do not have pensions and live in abject poverty. The majority of pensions were eroded over the years, due to a mixture of factors including bad government policies. The hyperinflation that climaxed in 2008 wiped off most savings and pensions and the present currency contradictions wiped them off again.

Many pensioners have helplessly watched their pensions and life savings lose value. Those without the safety nets of families and friends can only whittle away and die alone in abject poverty, despite the existence of legislation meant to protect them. With absolutely nothing to show for their lifetimes of work and careers and with no means of sustenance some retired to their rural homes. Some of those who returned to Chimanimani and Chipinge met their calamitous deaths in the cyclone. Some are still missing and may never be accounted for, especially those who lived alone. Those who survived will live to face an even more perilous and uncertain future among the rubble of their homesteads.

The rights of elderly persons are guaranteed in Section 21 of the Constitution. Former President Robert Mugabe signed the Older Persons Act in 2012 to much pomp and fanfare, but that was the last heard of it.

The Act prescribes the establishment of the Older Persons Board to look into the affairs of elderly people, but nothing is publicly known about the work of this board and if at all it has been put in place.

The Ministry of Social Welfare which administers the Act has to dedicate special resources and attention towards elderly victims of the cyclone. The majority of elderly survivors are in even worse personal straits because they are infirm and not as agile as younger people, who are able to readily seek help for themselves.

Elderly survivors need more assistance and emergency relief services. If the help and aid efforts underway are not properly co-ordinated they will only get to a few people in the more known areas, while the remote areas are neglected. Only the State has the capacity to access all areas through its administrative structures. The State and government agencies are charged with taking all reasonable steps to secure respect, support and protection accorded to elderly persons to enable them to participate in the life of their communities.

Section 21 charges the State with identifying and providing facilities, including food and social care for elderly people in need. The cyclone’s devastation impacted heavily on the elderly who are already vulnerable and endangered. The State has a duty to develop special programmes to take care of them and not lump them together with the rest of the victims.

More than 200 000 people need food aid and some of it has to be reserved for the elderly, otherwise they will starve as they may not have the stamina or capacity to go to distribution centres. If they live alone, there could be no one to ensure they have received any aid. The elderly have to be supported in various ways to participate and continue participating in the normal affairs of their communities. Support includes providing and reserving special amenities like recreational facilities and allocating special grants and allowances to cushion them financially.

Even though the Act does not specifically prescribe State-sponsored health facilities for the elderly, they are a necessity. Special services should be established within the existing public health service centres. Special health facilities are essential, because the aged have more pressing health needs than younger people.

Cyclone Idai exposed and aggravated their vulnerabilities more than ever before. Government health facilities give some concessions and free services for routine ailments, but not for the really serious ailments that plague elderly people more like knee and hip replacement surgeries. For major surgeries and issues they have to foot their own bills from their very meagre pensions which are heavily taxed like other citizens who are still economically active.

There is no health policy for them, yet it is well known that they have special needs. To show the extent of the neglect, it is impossible to buy medical aid insurance after the age of 65. Still the government does nothing about this despite it being illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age. There is no State health insurance for the aged, as the State abrogated its duty to protect them.

The Older Persons Act tasks the minister with setting up an Older Persons Board to look into their affairs. If the board does exist it is so inconspicuous that it might as well not be there. There should be more visible agitation for their issues such as getting tax exemptions and protecting their pensions and payment of long-standing pension arrears by local authorities and other organisations. Nobody remembered the elderly and spoke on their behalf about exemptions to the 2% electronic transfer tax.

The pensions’ policy in this country is a scandal and a shame, but it never gets public outcry because nobody speaks for them. Many pension funds absolve themselves on the pretext that there are no funds to pay, despite having invested pension contributions for many years. The treatment of the elderly people in this country needs serious rethinking.