[ANALYSIS] 365 days of COVID in Malta: Carefree youths vs. Scared old people?

One year after the first COVID-19 case to be reported in Malta and with a third wave in full swing, the viral images of partying young people at the abandoned White Rocks complex, raises a question: has the pandemic eroded the precious bond between scared older generations and carefree youths?

Older people in Malta were the only category to experience a full, State-mandated lockdown in the first months of the pandemic. They were also the first to take the brunt of the second wave in summer unleashed by the G7 ‘hotel takeover’ party, which then saw COVID-19 knocking on the doors of old people’s homes.

Yet with the vaccination rollout gaining momentum among the oldest generations – but with the virus still spreading wildly in a third wave among the yet to be vaccinated age brackets, the death toll among the young is also bound to increase.

Still with the death toll mounting in the past months, jumping from a daily 40 cases in October to 200 in December to over 330 now, and with most victims being in the older age groups, many from across the generation spectrum who were holed up in their abodes, are increasingly appalled by the carefree behaviour of those who have rushed back to normality. In such a scenario it is easy to stereotype the carefree as “young” and the more cautious and responsible as “old”, even if risky behaviour often cuts across the age spectrum.

Prof. Andrew Azzopardi, dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta, sums up the situation: while older generations were the most affected “to the point that their life has stopped because of fear of their wellbeing”, the younger generations are also suffering from pandemic fatigue to the extent that “their life has lost all its gloss.”

In such a scenario people of all ages are coping with “a drastic change in their lives and lifestyle”.

But according to Azzopardi it is the State which is to blame for sending the wrong signals to society thus exacerbating the divide between the old and the young. “We are still hoping that at some point our lives will get back on track, where all of this will be history but the hope that is thrown at us by politicians leaves us reeling in confusion and chaos – first that the wave will disappear, after that it’s back to normal, then it’s the vaccination and a never-ending wild goose chase.”

But Azzopardi disagrees with generalisations that young people do not care about the elderly. “It is simply the case whereby people just cannot get their heads around how to live their lives one year down this terrible road we found ourselves in.”

The worst thing in all this, according to Azzopardi, is that the State has been largely absent. “It is simply not helping these two generations fix this chaos they are experiencing.”

A pandemic of ageism?

One consequence of the pandemic is a proliferation of ageism, the discrimination on grounds of a person’s age, says Dr Christian Borg Xuereb, Head of the UoM’s Department of Gerontology and Dementia Studies.

“We can be ageist against older people as well as younger. COVID-19, unfortunately, brought to light a lot of ageist remarks and behaviours towards our older adults, asserting the myth that older people are vulnerable and frail,” he says.

The prevalence of such discourse may lead to undesirable effects. For example, the way deaths were reported at the start of the pandemic, strengthened the idea of older persons as ‘frail’. “Their comorbidities were highlighted, rather than stating that they died due to COVID-19”.

And during news updates it was felt that it was more important to report numbers of dead people and we forgot what those numbers represented. “Older persons became a statistic! We forgot that the persons who died, had a history, a loving family, and have contributed to our society, in one form or another.”

Moreover these negative age stereotypes can be internalised and adopted by individuals of any age. So in line with behavioural science, health can be detrimentally affected when these views become self-relevant, “that is when they start influencing older persons’ beliefs about their own ageing.”

“Rather than talking about the ‘vulnerability’ of older adults, we should highlight their strengths,” Dr Borg Xuereb says.

But young people who are not immune to the virus also found themselves on the other end of the stick of ageism. “We cannot homogenise the younger generation as one whole cohort that nonchalantly disregard public health directives.”

In fact there remain many of the ‘younger generation’ who are doing their utmost to follow and to take care of people who are more risk averse. Borg Xuereb thinks it’s the media, particularly the social media, that tends to depict certain adults who act irresponsibly, or are unrealistically optimistic and think that nothing is going to happen to them by being ‘younger’ even if these include people who are not so young in age. In this way an equation has been created between being young and being carefree, disrespectful and irresponsible.

But this behaviour is bound to have very real consequences “which would have to be addressed by an already stressed health care system, as health professionals have been pointing out for some time.”

One of the dangers posed to society is that “there may be a growing division that is happening between a small group of younger people and older people, were younger people might be directing their anger about the situation towards older adults and other risk-averse groups, who could have been portrayed in the media as the ones to benefit from these public health measures.”

Borg Xuereb warns that in the near future, this age division and negative portrayal of older adults and people who are risk-averse, may affect younger people’s ageing process as they “internalise negative messages about old age and ageing in the context of the current pandemic.”

“Consequently, this could also bear an impact on the next generation, as children will invariably learn and model their behaviour from the adults around them. The reality is that time passes equally for everyone.”

Full circle

Ironically, with older people being the first to be vaccinated while the virus keeps unrelentingly spreading in the community – especially among people from younger age groups, hospitalisation and the deaths are also bound to increase among the latter.

In fact by the beginning of February, the number of people aged 85 and over admitted to hospital with COVID-19 had plummeted by 80% according to preliminary data from a Mater Dei Hospital study. Over 85-year-olds were the first to be inoculated by the virus.

Studies in Israel also found that COVID-19 hospitalisations of over 60s fell by more than 30% after that cohort received the first of two vaccine shots.

In such a situation the perception that COVID-19 is mainly a threat to old people may backfire, as younger age groups who previously downplayed the risks, become more exposed to danger. This may well evoke a scenario where younger people, particularly those with underlying conditions, will be increasingly the ones to bear the brunt of the third wave along with older categories which have still not been vaccinated.

Still, the spread of the virus particularly of more infective and potentially vaccine resistant strains may well put everyone in danger.

The mixed messages by the State, which in January had promised a quick return to normality by May, only to reintroduce restrictions after a nightmarish surge in the past days, has clearly increased the sense of uncertainty weighing on old and young alike.

The danger now is that just as COVID-19 initially solidified social bonds in the face of an unknown external threat, the longer the pandemic drags on, the greater the sense of helplessness in the face of rising numbers of infections becomes. The precious bond between the old and the young may well be another casualty of this dampened national mood.