Victoria finds itself in the middle of its fourth lockdown since the COVID-19 pandemic began fourteen months ago. Once again — and in an ominous symmetry — it is aged care facilities that are at the centre of the outbreak, and therefore at the centre of public and political attention.

The most serious occurrences of uncontrolled transmission of the virus initially took place in two aged care facilities in Sydney — Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House. The virus would go on to tear through Victoria’s private aged-care facilities, with devastating consequences: by year’s end, more than three-quarters of Australia’s deaths from COVID-19 were among the elderly in care facilities. This time around, two aged care facilities in Melbourne — Arcare Maidstone and BlueCross Western Gardens — are in the eye of the storm.

The question, for many, is: How could this have happened again? With vaccines available and priority already being given to residents and workers in residential aged care, how is it that so many have still not been vaccinated?

This is all the more bewildering in light of the release, earlier this year, of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which highlighted the dangers of permitting aged-care staff to work across multiple facilities, and the inadequacy of training requirements — not least when it comes to infectious disease control.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that has revealed the gross inadequacy of our institutionalised care of elderly members of our community. It forces us to reconsider the nature and ground of our obligation to provide ongoing support and care to the elderly members of our community, in a way that doesn’t reduce them to a “problem” to be managed – much less handed over to a “market-based” solution – but rather that recognises their dignity, full humanity, and agency over their lives, as well as their ongoing membership to a broader moral community.

Why is it that we have seemed to have “forgotten” this obligation, or to have disregarded its claim on our lives, and have thus found it unobjectionable to consign large numbers of elderly people to substandard and degraded living conditions? In what way are entrenched patterns of cultural prejudice against the elderly — “ageism” — involved? Which is to say, to what extent are we all implicated in the problem, and therefore in the solution?

Aged care: How do we honour our obligations to the elderly?
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