Slavery is not an Islamic invention. Slave trade was an accepted way of life, fully established in all societies. Most of these slaves were white people, the word ‘slave,’ comes probably from the people of Eastern Europe, the Slavs. Without exception, the ancient world accepted slavery as normal and desirable.
The great civilizations of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, were built upon slave labor. The Greeks, from whom we derive so many humanistic ideas, were dependent on slavery. Three quarters of the population of Athens were slaves. Even Plato’s Republic was based on slave labor. This was also the case of Rome. Under the Roman law, when a slave owner was found murdered, all his slaves were to be executed. In fact, half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.
However, Islam is unique concerning slavery, as it is legally and religiously permitted and endorsed. Slavery persisted in the Arab-Muslim world for centuries, from its beginning. Islam itself means “submission,” as in being a slave to Allah’s will. Slavery has been justified by Mohammed’s example, as laid out in the Hadith.
The main occupation of Arab tribes before Islam was raids on others (Ghazawat) in order to take booty (Ghan’im). They were not farmers nor traders, nor scientists or intellectuals. They were raiders. For the Arabs, warfare was an economic benefit to achieving human spoils of war: captives. Becoming Muslims has brought only a marginal change: instead of raiding on one another as a social-economic way of life, now came the religious order to raid on the infidels’ territories and the prize was to take much more valuable booty: fertile lands, rich property and huge amount of captives.
Muslims conquered, invaded, controlled countries and took spoils and prisoners as slaves. Islam allows Muslims to make slaves out of anyone who is captured among the infidels. Islam allows for the children of slaves to be raised as slaves. Islam allows for Christians and Jews to be made into slaves if they are captured in war. Muhammad and many of his companions bought, sold, freed and captured slaves. So it stands to reason that the Qur’an, the Hadith, and classical Islamic law have a notorious doctrine and practice of slavery. Islam perpetuated the institution.
While on a military campaign, Muslim soldiers had sex with their female captives, even though the women were married to polytheists. It is also permitted to have sex with prepubescent slave-girls. This is the attitude of Sahih Muslim, 008.3432. They also asked Muhammad about coitus-interruptus with their captive female slaves. Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: We got female captives in the war booty and we used to do coitus interruptus with them. So we asked Allah’s Apostle about it and he said, ‘Do you really do that?’ repeating the question thrice, ‘There is no soul that is destined to exist but will come into existence till the Day of Resurrection’ (Sahih Bukhari, 7:62:137; 5:59:459; 3:46:718; The Muwatta’ of Imam Ahmad, p. 240).
As Islam spread out across the globe, Muslims captured huge amount of slaves. Islam enslaved any nation or ethnic group that it conquered, from blacks in Africa to white men, and especially women from the Balkan, Hungary and Ukraine. Muslims also kidnapped young children, boys and girls, and Islamized them, the notorious one was the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans of the Devshirme system. Muslims also raided the European Mediterranean societies, from the 16th century on from North Africa, robed the inhabitants and kidnapped children and women, an era known as the naval piracy.
Slavery and the sexual exploitation of women are deeply ingrained in Islamic cultural tradition and religious commandments. Muslim slave owners were entitled by the Shari’ah to sexually exploit their slaves. Muslim nations had engaged in the slave trade for over 600 years before Europe became involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Almost 200 years after the British outlawed the slave trade Muslim markets continue in many countries the sale of slaves. There are persistent, credible reports that slavery exists in many Muslim countries in large numbers.
Muhammad owned slaves. He also traded with slaves, mainly women, and exchanged women concubines with others. He even asked his adopted son, Zayd, to give him his wife. Above all, he never decreed slavery as abolished. The institution was too lucrative and deeply rooted during the entire Islamic history. According to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (Zad al-Ma’ad, 1:160), Muhammad had many male and female slaves. He used to buy and sell them, but he purchased more slaves than he sold.
After Muhammad fought the ‘Battle of the Trench,’ he slaughtered the Jewish men of Banu Qurayzah tribe and sold the women and children into slavery: verse 33:26-27: “And he drove down those of the People of the Book who backed them from their fortresses and He cast terror into their hearts; some of them you killed and some you took captive.” Ibn Ishaq records Muhammad’s massacre of the Jewish tribe, Banu Quraythah (pp. 465-66). Then the apostle dug trenches, and he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches… There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900… Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children among the Muslims. Some of the captive women he sent to Najd and sold them for horses and weapons.
The same happened when Muhammad attacked Khaybar, where the women were distributed amongst the Muslims.’ Muhammad (then about 60 years old) obtained for himself the very beautiful teenage girl, Safiya who appealed for her freedom. Instead he had sex with her (Ibn Ishaq, p. 511; Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:143; Sahih Muslim, 8:3326; Sunan Abu Dawud, 2:11:2118). Sahih Bukhari (5:59:512) records the occupation of Khaybar: “Khaybar is destroyed. The inhabitants of Khaybar came out running on the roads. The Prophet ordered their warriors killed, their offspring and woman taken as captives” “We conquered Khaybar, took the captives, and the booty was collected. Dihya came and said, ‘O Allah’s Prophet! Give me a slave girl from the captives.’ The Prophet said, ‘Go and take any slave girl’” (1:8:367).
The same horror occurred with beautiful Juwairiyah, after her peaceful tribe was attacked as they watered their cattle. The men were killed and the women and children enslaved and shared amongst the Muslims (Sahih Bukhari, 3:46:717; Sahih Muslim, 19:4292; Sunan Abu Dawud, 29:3920).
In many cases Muhammad gave girls to two of his sons-in-law and to a friend just to enjoy them (Ibn Ishaq, p. 593; al-Tabari, vol. 8, pp. 29-30). On pp. 592-3 we read that Muhammad enslaved 6000 women and children plus innumerable sheep and camels. As for Ali he said “Women are plentiful, and you can easily change one for another.
The Qur’an includes multiple references to slaves, slave women, slave concubines. Islam accepts the institution of slavery. It was also perceived as a means of converting non-Muslims to Islam. Slaves are mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Qur’an. Muslims are allowed to have sexual relation with slave-girls. Slaves are called in the Qur’an as Mulk al-Yamin, “the right hand possesses” (4:24). All Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence agree about the enforcement of this verse. ‘What your right hand possesses’ refers to slaves and is found in many places: 4:3,24,25,36; 16:71; 23:6; 24:31,33,58; 30:28; 33:50,52,55; 70:30.
The verse (4:24) says: And forbidden to you are wedded wives of other people… except those whom your right hands possess. Ibn Kathir, one of the most authoritative and highly regarded classical commentators of the Sunni world, writes of these female captives of war: “except those whom you acquire through war, for you are allowed such women after making sure they are not pregnant. Imam Ahmad recorded that Abu Said Al-Khudri said, “We captured some women from the area of Awtas who were already married, and we disliked having sexual relations with them because they already had husbands. So, we asked the Prophet about this matter, and this Ayah was revealed… Consequently, we had sexual relations with these women.”
Thus, women captives are forced to have sex with their Muslim masters, regardless of the marital status of the women. That is, the masters are allowed to break their marriage and have sex with them. Other verses maintains: “…you may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them marry one only or any slave-girls you may own” (4:3). “Prophet, we have made lawful for you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom Allah has given you as booty…” (33:50).
In 33.50, Allah gives Muhammad and all Muslim men the right to take slaves and have sex with female slaves. These are Allah given religious rights. See also 23:1-7; 70:29-30; 4.24. The Hadith contains many hundreds of descriptions of Muslims raping women captured in battle or having sex with their household slaves. This is their right ordained by Allah. Many descriptions of sex with slaves is also found dealing with ‘Azl. Coitus interruptus, withdrawing the penis before ejaculation (Sahih Muslim, 22:8; Sahih Bukhari, 8:77:600; Sunan Abu Dawud, 11:2166).
So, A Muslim men were allowed to have sex anytime with slave females (4:3, 4:29, 33:49). A Muslim could not be put to death for murdering a slave (2:178). Verse 33:52 says: “You [Prophet] are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have for others, even if these attract you with their beauty. But this does not apply to your slave-girls. Muhammad took a slave woman right immediately after his massacre of the Qurayza Jews, taking an extra-beautiful one from them.
Beheading the men and dividing up the boys as human spoils of war carry on Muhammad’s policy seen in Quran 33:26-27, in which he enslaved the women and children of the Qurayzah tribe of Jews. Tabari (vol. 11, p. 55), describes conquests during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-634) that represent many others throughout Islamic history. In Ayn al-Tamr, Iraq, Khalid bin al-Walid, Sayf al-Islam, “beheaded all the men of the fortress and took possession of all that their fortress contained, seizing as spoils what was in it… Khalid found in their church forty boys who were studying the Gospels behind a locked door, which he broke down in getting to them. He asked, “Who are you?” They replied, “Hostages.” He divided them among the Muslims who had performed outstandingly in battle.
In Islam Jihad to occupy the world and to force it to follow or be subjugated under Islam encompasses the ‘institutions’ of Dhimmitude and slavery. The major source of slaves was the constant Muslim raids into infidel areas, which were depopulated. Islam’s slavery was genocidal as males were generally slaughtered, while females and children were taken. The children were removed from their family and culture, forcibly converted, and used as soldiers. Slaves and their offspring were owned by the master and passed on as part of his property to inherit. Under Islam slaves have no legal rights at all – they are just a property.
Dhimmis were also forced to hand over their women and children either to pay their taxes or under laws demanding them as tribute so they became slaves and concubines. Hence the entire occupied populations were destroyed.
Most important the Shari’ah legalizes slavery, and if it is permitted in the Scriptures, nobody can abolish or even change it. All Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence traditionally accepted the institution of slavery. Slaves are regarded as inferior in Islamic law. They are not permitted to possess or inherit property, or conduct independent business. The testimony of slaves is not admissible in court; slaves cannot choose their own marriage mate, and can be forced to marry who their masters want. Slave women were required mainly as concubines and menials. A Muslim slaveholder was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. There is no limit on the number of concubines a master may possess. The Islamic market demand for children was much higher than adults. Organized slave traders smuggled children into Islamic markets where they are enslaved, mutilated, and also serve as male concubine.
The Shari’ah sets Jihad laws as ‘warfare to establish the religion’ (Reliance of the Traveller, o9.0 p. 599), specify the enslavement or death if they resist, of women and children (o9.10 p. 603). Captured women and children become slaves and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled (o9.13 p. 604). Vassal states were forced to supply thousands of their children annually as ‘tribute’ and these people became slaves.
Ibn Rushd compiled a compendium of the opinions of jurists up to his time. He summarizes various legal opinions about slavery: it is allowed to harm the enemy’s life, property and personal liberty, enslavement and ownership. There is a consensus about slavery, their men and women, old and young, the common people and the elite. For Ibn Rushd the example of Muhammad was extremely important for establishing the Shari’ah concerning slavery.
Bernard Lewis has put it correctly: the essence of the Shari’ah is three key elements: a) Muslim superiority over non-Muslims; b) male superiority over females; c) the legitimacy of violence to extend Islam to occupy the world. In his Race and Color in Islam, he brings many quotations and historical examples as to introduce the high need for slaves, whether acquired by violence or by commercial exchange. It was also legitimized by Islamic Scriptures and by racist felling of the Arabs, being superior species compare to the inferiority of blacks.
According to Peter Hammond, Slave Raids into Africa, the overall toll of black Africans who were transited to American and Muslim slave markets, is estimated at least 112 million, and more than 50%, in some areas and eras even 80% of those killed in the raids or died in transit. Over a million of white Europeans also ended up in the Islamic slave markets, women being a particular favorite of Arab slavers.
Humphrey J. Fisher, in his book, Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa, shows the ever cruel history of Islamic slave trade in Africa. The tribes’ territories were harshly Islamized, while 120 million blacks were captured as slaves, almost half of them were perished while driven on the routes to be shipped to America and the Middle East markets.
Ronald Segal in his Islam’s Black Slaves documents that from its emergence Islam has established and institutionalized slavery and slave trade. When Islam conquered the Persian Sassanid Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire, female slaves were required in considerable numbers as concubines and domestic workers. The harems of rulers became enormous in size, and castration of male slaves was common place.
Segal records: In the 1570’s, a Frenchman visiting Egypt found many thousands of blacks on sale in Cairo markets. In 1665 Father Antonios Gonzalis, a Spanish/Belgian traveler, reported 800-1000 slaves on sale in the Cairo market on every single day. In 1838, it was estimated that 10000 to 12000 slaves were arriving in Cairo each year. He also observed that “White slaves from Christian Spain, Central and Eastern Europe’ were also shipped into the Middle East and served in the “palaces of rulers and the establishments of the rich.”
Even as late as the 19th Century, it was noted that in Mecca “there are few families that do not keep slaves, and they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives.” Even Ronald Segal, who was most sympathetic to Islam and prejudiced against Christianity, admits that well over 30 million black Africans have died at the hands of Muslim slave traders or ended up in Islamic slavery.
The Islamic slave trade took place across the Sahara Desert, from the coast of the Red Sea, and from East Africa across the Indian Ocean. The Trans Sahara trade was conducted along six major slave routes. As for the 19th Century alone, of which we have more accurate records, 1.2 million slaves were brought across the Sahara into the Middle East, 450000 down the Red Sea and 442000 from East African coastal ports. That is a total of 2 million black slaves. At least 8 million more were calculated to have died before reaching the Muslim slave markets.
For John Alembillah Azumah, Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, “…the worst, most inhumane and most diabolical institution of the black African slave trade was initiated, refined, perpetrated and implemented by the Mohammedan Arabs and later aided and abetted by the black converts to Mohammedan Islam.”
Robert O. Collins and James M. Burns in their A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, prove that “The advent of the Islamic age coincided with a sharp increase in the African slave trade.” Africa has become a major supplier of slaves for North Africa and Islamic Spain. The other route was through the shores of East Africa to the Americas. The earliest Muslim account of slaves crossing the Sahara to Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast was written in the seventh century. From the ninth century to the nineteenth slave trade was the biggest Islamic industry in Africa. In fact it was the only industry.
By the Middle-Ages, the Arab word ‘Abd’ was in general use to denote a black slave while the word “Mamluk” referred to a white slave. Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) wrote: “The Negro nations are as a rule submissive to slavery, because they have attributes that are quite similar to dumb animals.” When the Fatimid came to power in Egypt they slaughtered all the tens of thousands of black military slaves and raised an entirely new slave army. From Persia to Egypt to Morocco, slave armies became common-place. After Muslim armies attacked and conquered Spain, they took thousands of slaves back to Damascus. The key prize was 1000 virgins as slaves. They were forced to go all the way back to Damascus.
Robert C. Davis, in his Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, estimates that North African Muslim pirates abducted and enslaved more than 1 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780. Thousands in coastal areas were seized every year to work as galley slaves, laborers and concubines for Muslim slave masters in what is today Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Oman and Saudi-Arabia. He indicates that perhaps one and one-quarter million white European Christians were enslaved by Barbary Muslims. Jihad piracy and slave raids were a fact of life in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions for the better part of a thousand years.
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, records. In 1796, a British traveler reported a caravan of 5000 slaves departing from Darfur. Just in the Arabic plantations off the East Coast of Africa, on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, there were 769000 black slaves. In the 19th Century, East African black slave trade included 347,000 slaves shipped to Arabia and Persia.
Suzanne Everett, in her History of Slavery records: In 1818, al-Mukani ruler in Tripoli “waged war on all its defenseless neighbors and annually carried off 4000 to 5000 slaves. The traders speak of slaves as farmers do of cattle. Murders, tortures and rape abuse were day by day habits. Records in Morocco in 1876 show that the market prices for slaves varied from £10 to £30; female slaves comprised vast majority of sales with ‘attractive virgins’ £40 to £80. “A considerable majority of the slaves crossing the Sahara, were destined to become concubines in North Africa and the Middle East.”
Murray Gordon records: “Muhammad took pains in urging the faithful to free their slaves as a way of expiating their sins. Some Muslim scholars have taken this to mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. Far more persuasive is the argument that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place.”
He analyzes the sexual aspects of slavery. “For a better part of the Middle-Ages, Europe served as a valuable source of slaves who were prized in the Muslim world as soldiers, concubines, and eunuchs.” It is important to note that this pattern was established long before the European colonial period. In fact, “Eunuchs commanded the highest prices among slaves, followed by young and pretty white women… White women were almost always in greater demand than Africans, and Arabs were prepared to pay much higher prices for Circassian and Georgian women.” This was also the Fate of Slav women from the Balkans and Hungary. Abyssinian (Ethiopian) girls were considered the “second best.”
Slave taking rapidly advanced into a full-scale industry, with a disastrous impact that was apparent at the time and for centuries to come. Giles Milton in his White Gold, has noticed that the seventeenth century represented a dark period out of which Spanish and Italian societies emerged as mere shadows compare to the past. Arab slavery raids of kidnapping women and young children continued just below the surface of the coastal culture of the European Mediterranean even into the first years of the twentieth century.
The Indian historian, K. S. Lal, in his books, Theory and practice of Muslim state in India, and Islamic Jihad: the Legacy of forced conversion, imperialism and Slavery, brings horrible data of how Islamic Jihadists conquered India, butchered its inhabitants by millions, and developed a huge peculiar system of slavery there. Raiding non-Muslim territories became a constant phenomenon. Five centuries after Muslims came to power in the territory, the animist hill peoples completely disappeared as a result of their conversion through enslavement into the Muslim populace of Malaya, Sumatra and Borneo. By the raiding system, especially of children, these areas has become Islamic. In many places of Southeast Asia, the enslavement was so entrenched so that the entire population, polytheistic Hindu, Buddhist and Animist creeds, became Muslim or exterminated.
COVID-19: More than a Biological Weapon
While the biological virus is a common enemy of humankind, the political virus born out of certain American politicians is equally detestable, for it has damaged the global anti-epidemic cooperation and impeded the long-term development and progress of human society. The virus in the political world has done even more damages than the virus from the natural world.
What are the sources of this political virus then? It is rooted in the selfish interests of a handful of American politicians. Not long ago, the American media revealed that senior US officials had handed down documents to a number of federal agencies requesting all federal employees to speak consistently about the pandemic and blame China for everything. The document was practically a confession of the US government on how it implemented the buck-passing. As 2020 is America’s election year, some American politicians are so crazily intent on fabricating all kinds of fallacies about “holding China accountable,” attacking the WHO for being too “China-centric,” and even criticizing some state governors for poor epidemic response, all to keep the epidemic from affecting the election. Such unscrupulous “political shows” reflect how desperate these politicians are to cover up their misconduct both in the decision and execution of their response, with a purpose of deflecting the public grumble.
The political virus is a tumor stemming from racism. After the WHO and the scientific circle named the novel coronavirus COVID-19, some American politicians deliberately ignored the new nomenclature and insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus”. It is an international consensus not to label a virus with a region, state, or nation, which is also a universal principle that the international community should uphold. Yet these American politicians are determined to defy the world by intentionally steering public opinions in the direction of racism and xenophobia, and practicing racial discrimination. The use of the term “Chinese virus” for coronavirus laid bare the absolute absence of common sense, conscience, cooperative spirit, and morality in those politicians infected with the “political virus”.
The political virus derives from the Cold War mentality. A small group of American politicians have been obsessed with political maneuver and slandering China, especially the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been busy fanning flames and spreading rumors. The “political virus” ingrained in their mind is the hotbed of all their vicious intentions. They have the wishful thinking that accusing China of the so-called “mask diplomacy” would offset its influence; vilifying China’s aid to help build the African Center for Disease Prevention and Control as an attempt to “steal genome data” would drive a wedge between China and Africa; and egging other countries to claim reparations from China would pin the “original sin” of the virus on the country…. These whimsical whoppers are nothing but Washington’s attempts to curb China’s development.
The political virus is rooted in the obsession with “great-power competition.” The US government labeled China and Russia as the biggest challenges to US national security in its latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and declared the reemergence of great-power competition. During this global crisis of COVID-19, certain American politicians, going out of their way to make “ammunition to win the great-power competition,” have gone all out to oppose China in every possible way and tried hard to cover up America’s embarrassment of ineffective epidemic control measures by smearing China, rather than focus on preventing the virus spread. As we can never wake up someone pretending to be asleep, perhaps the best way is to leave him alone and “not even turn our eyes in his direction,” as the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun once said.
The disease has seeped down into the skin and should be treated before it gets worse. The world is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and all countries need to join hands in defeating it. We advise the American politicians with ulterior motives to stop the misdeed and change course before its too late. We also call on the international community to stay on high alert and take strong measures to prevent the American political virus from spreading to do more harm to the global anti-epidemic efforts and the normal international order.
Spanish Flu and COVID-19 – are there lessons for the world of work?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many look to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19, which killed an estimated 50 million people, or 2,5 per cent of the global population. Are there lessons to be learned from the world of work perspective?
The Spanish flu did not start in Spain but was called that because Spanish newspapers were the first to report about it. From its presumed origins in a World War I military camp in the state of Kansas, United States, it washed over the world in three waves. The first, mild one in spring 1918, was followed by a second, more deadly outbreak between September and December 1918 and a third one at the beginning of 1919.
All countries were hit, although unequally. Samoa lost 22 per cent of its population, Spain 12,3 per cent and the US 6,5 per cent. In colonial India, the flu killed 6 per cent of the population, amounting to 18 million, roughly the number of victims of the First World War.
Similar patterns, similar measures
COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu both have struck a highly globalized and interconnected world where viruses easily travel on ships, carriers and trains, or – today – on airplanes. As 1918 was the last year of the First World War, the movement of troops and refugees was a significant factor in spreading the virus. In 2019/20, business and leisure travellers have been the main carriers.
The only measures to control the spread of the disease back in 1918 just as in 2020 were better hygiene, quarantine of the infected, “social distancing” and shutting down much of public life. This implied massive restrictions of civil liberties and paralysis and disruption of the economy.
In 1918/19 as well as today, the poorest and most vulnerable, who often lived in crowded conditions, with low paid work and little or no access to health care, were much more exposed to infection. They also suffered most immediately from drastic lock down measures, and were at a particularly high risk of losing their lives and their livelihoods.
The Spanish Flu happened at the tail end of the First World War, in a context of widespread chaos. The response to the crisis was uncoordinated, mostly local, with a high mobilization of civil society groups.
In industrialized nations, the economic impact was rather short lived. Eventually, the economic boom of the “Roaring Twenties” got many people back to work.
In other parts of the world, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa, the consequences were deeper and longer lasting. A shortfall in labour affected harvest and sowing. Food prices spiked, causing widespread famine and an increased flow of migrants into urban centres. This led to social unrest, strikes and rebellion against colonial powers.
What we can learn
Although the world is very different today, we can learn from the events in 1918/19 that a pandemic increases poverty and inequalities; this carries a social and human cost, which can have long term destabilizing effects.
Today, states have more possibilities to react, including through fiscal and labour market policies and tools, and the opportunity for international cooperation through the United Nations and their international partners.
Policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis need to address inequalities and ensure that poor, rural and marginalized communities are not forgotten. ILO’s labour standards such as Recommendation No. 205, on employment and decent work for peace and resilience, provide the necessary framework.
The global economic and labour market problems arising out of the COVID-19 crisis suggest looking also at the economic crisis of the 1930s and reconstruction policies after World War II.
As a response to massive unemployment and destruction, the ILO promoted comprehensive social protection, including health care, and a variety of employment promotion policies based on the conviction that poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.
These past responses can be an inspiration for recovery policies which have to be fair and – compared to the past – much more sustainable.
COVID-19 crisis: Older persons are the pillars of our society – we cannot leave them behind
Authors: Kaveh Zahedi and Eduardo Klien*
COVID-19 is turning our world upside down, especially for those at the end of the age spectrum. The virus and its rapid spread are challenging science, economy and society—as well as how we care for older persons.
We know that the risk of dying from COVID-19 increases significantly with age. Evidence from Asia and the Pacific shows that case fatality rates rise markedly by decade for persons between the ages of 50 to 80. Due to public health measures, many older persons will die alone, without family and friends. COVID-19 has stripped them of their fundamental human rights – including the right to live and die with dignity.
In Asia and the Pacific, there are 630 million older persons aged 60 years or over. However, it is not only age that poses a higher risk. Older persons tend to be more affected by chronic and non-communicable diseases, making them more vulnerable to succumbing to COVID-19. Those with disabilities are at a particularly high risk since they are often poor, in vulnerable employment without adequate social protection and dependent on others.
Personal distancing has also had a heavy impact on older persons. Those living alone, particularly older women, may become lonelier and more vulnerable to abuse. Persons with disabilities will be unable to receive assistance. Gatherings of older persons’ associations – an effective tool for their empowerment – are no longer possible. Those confined in care homes remain without the safeguards afforded by regular contact with the outside world. These factors can undermine an older person’s mental and physical health and exacerbate social exclusion.
Weak social protection and limited access to affordable health care in the region make it less likely for older persons to seek care when showing symptoms of COVID-19. Informal workers without social protection –which includes most working older persons- cannot afford to self-isolate as it threatens their sources of income. ESCAP and HelpAge International have promoted social protection through universal schemes, including social pensions, as well as access to Universal Health Care.
Early detection and testing of COVID-19 has led to effective and timely policy interventions. We must ensure immediately that all older persons with symptoms get tested and treated. For those who cannot afford testing, we must provide adequate health care and social protection.
Although many cases require us to avoid personal contact with older persons, we must reach out to our parents, grandparents, older neighbors and friends to ensure that their basic needs are met. We must engage with them socially, show our respect and assure them how much they matter to all of us, especially in times of crisis. In our interactions with older persons we must be more risk-averse, but not discriminatory.
The post-COVID-19 world will not be the same as before. We know that times ahead will be difficult, unemployment will be high and poverty widespread. While governments in many countries, including in Asia and the Pacific, have announced cash transfers and support to small and medium enterprises (SME) to mitigate the impacts of the crisis, it is imperative that they reach everyone.
We must also reduce the digital divide. Access to information and communications technology (ICT) can play a crucial mitigating role during crises, and it must be made available to older persons. ICT can help them manage aspects of their chronic diseases independently, which saves costs and reduces exposure to diseases from visiting hospitals and clinics. Using ICT to diagnose diseases can also help with early detection of disease and in turn early treatment and warning of developing disease hotspots. ESCAP is implementing a project exploring the feasibility of using ICT to support older persons in coping with chronic diseases. HelpAge is also integrating ICT in home and community care projects in the region.
Timely, reliable and age-disaggregated data are crucial to supporting targeted interventions among older persons. As they face unique challenges, tailored data can help devise more effective responses and longer-term solutions.
Older persons are crucial pillars of our societies, and their voice must be heard. They are the pioneers who have made the region prosper. It is our responsibility to reduce their vulnerabilities and ensure that older persons live without discrimination.
COVID-19 is challenging our commitment and capacity to leave no one behind. ESCAP and HelpAge work together and stand ready to support member States in responding to challenges, while aiming at policies for ageing societies based on the fundamentals of human rights: equality and dignity for all.
*Eduardo Klien. Regional Director for Asia – HelpAge International
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