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Governments across Europe are facing a coronavirus-related revolt from the elderly, who are pushing back on plans that would see their home-confinement prolonged as restrictions on other age groups are slowly relaxed. Seniors say a prolonged "gray lockdown" amounts to age discrimination and will probably cut their lives short anyway, regardless of the coronavirus.
They have support from some doctors, who warn of the "impact" lockdowns are having on the "physical and mental health" of the elderly.
In Britain, where all those aged 70 and over, regardless of their health, have been classified as "clinically vulnerable" and told to stay at home, the British Medical Association (BMA) has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to include the elderly in any plans for easing the coronavirus lockdown in the coming weeks. Home confinement is damaging the mental health of seniors, they say.
Age alone should not determine people's ability to resume aspects of their daily lives when the government begins easing the overall lockdown restrictions in the coming weeks, the BMA says.
In a statement, the BMA said, "A blanket ban on any section of the population being prohibited from lockdown easing would be discriminatory and unacceptable." The doctors' association acknowledged the government should ensure that "those at highest risk from infection are protected," but added, "This needs to be based on individual risk that would apply at all ages rather than an arbitrary age of 60 or 70."
Muir Gray, professor of primary health care at Britain's Oxford University, has warned of a "de-conditioning syndrome," in which reduced physical and mental activity "increases the risk of dementia and frailty."
Those at greatest risk to the coronavirus are the over-70s, but the elderly say they should be allowed to make their own risk assessments as other age groups are slowly released from confinement.
"It should be up to us to determine our own risk, and judge whether we can finally see our children and grandchildren again," according to commentator Magnus Linklater.
As debate rages in Britain over the future of the elderly, Boris Johnson's father, Stanley, has entered the fray, saying he hopes his son will end restrictions on seniors in time for his 80th birthday in August as he hopes to join an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for a charity.
"I am rather hoping they will ease the restrictions in time," the elder Johnson said.
After a pushback from the elderly in France, President Emmanuel Macron assured seniors his government will try to avoid setting separate rules for older people as the easing of the coronavirus confinement unfolds. The French president was forced to offer the concession when a backlash mounted after his top scientific adviser, Jean-François Delfraissy, said home confinement should continue for people over the age of 65 for the foreseeable future.
"The President has followed the growing debate about the situation for elderly citizens," the Elysee palace said in a statement last month. "He does not want there to be any discrimination among citizens after May 11 in the context of a gradual easing of confinement measures, and will appeal to people's individual responsibility."
The debate is underscoring generational tensions in Europe. As countries started to lock down in March and April, governments appealed to cross-generational solidarity, arguing that the young had a duty to abide by restrictions in order to shield the most-at-risk groups, those with underlying health conditions, the old and frail.
While many, if not most, people, both young and old, have responded to the appeals, there have been signs of generational friction - as well as complaints by both sides. Some youngsters bristled at lockdowns and flouted restrictions, with especially rebellious ones disobeying the rules on social distancing. Some held "lockdown parties" and "end of world" drinking sessions, joking on social media sites that the pandemic was the perfect opportunity for the removal of the baby boomer generation. Baby boomers are generally thought to have been born between 1946 and 1964.
Millennials (born between 1981 and the mid-'90s) and youngsters from Generation Z (born between the mid-'90s and 2015), have also complained that they will be the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the economic costs of the coronavirus, rather than the old, much as what happened after the 2008 crash. State pensions in most European countries after the financial crash were shielded for the elderly and increased in line with inflation; austerity measures hit youngsters harder, their advocates say.
The elderly have said that they too suffered after 2008 with low returns on their savings - as they are suffering now. Nonetheless, there have been mounting calls for the huge economic cost of the pandemic emergency measures to be shared equally between old and young in the years ahead.
"Quite rightly, society is making sacrifices to protect its elderly right now. There is a clear case for intergenerational reciprocation when it comes to meeting the fiscal costs of the crisis in the years ahead," said Scott Corfe of the Social Market Foundation, a research group based in London.
While some youngsters, who are less at risk from the coronavirus, have earned the ire of government officials and scientists for blithely flouting coronavirus restrictions, there have also been complaints of some seniors not observing lockdown rules, especially in central Europe, where pensioners have crowded markets. Romanian authorities cracked down on pensioners, ordering those aged over 65 only to venture from their homes between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. unless seeking urgent medical care.
Craig Turp, the editor of Emerging Europe, a news site, suggested that the more carefree attitude of central Europe's elderly had much to do with the history they have experienced.
"War, deportation, poverty, dictatorship and revolution: They harden the spirit, darken the soul." He went on to write, "For anyone who has lived through them, why would an invisible threat such as coronavirus pose any concern at all?"