Earlier this week, Help Age India, a non-profit organisation that runs four old age homes in Punjab and Tamil Nadu, and supports around 5,000 others across the country, restricted the entry of outsiders into its establishments. It also issued guidelines to its staff members and carers to wear masks, gloves and wash hands regularly.

These precautions were instituted as the coronavirus curve continued to climb. By Saturday, Covid-19, the disase caused by the circus had infected 275,434 people worldwide and killed 11,399, according to an estimate by Johns Hopkins University. In India, 283 people had been infected and four people were dead, all of them older than 60.

The World Health Organisation warned that that people above 60 years and those with underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are especially susceptible to the virus.

On March 12, the first coronavirus-related death in India was reported from Karnataka where a 76-year-old man died after he tested positive for the virus. A day later, another death related to the virus was recorded after a 68-year-old woman died in Delhi. On March 17, a 63-year-old man died, registering it as the third death because of the virus. On March 19, a 72-year-old man from Punjab becomes the fourth casualty.

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December, nearly 15% of patients over 80 years died from the confirmed cases, according to the New York Times. The report stated that the death rate was below one per cent for those below 50 years.

This puts at risk at least 104 million Indians, who were counted as senior citizens in the 2011 Census. The census states that 66% of elderly men in rural areas and 28% elderly women continued to work. In urban areas, these numbers were considerably lower for both genders at 46% and 11%.

Taking precautions

Realising that their residents are especially vulnerable, several old age homes across India have begun to take precautionary measures. In addition to restricting entry and getting staff to wear protective clothing, Help Age India went a step further. “We also have a helpline where counsellors have been advised to tell people not to panic and give out necessary instructions to follow,” said said Ritu Rana, the healthcare head in the organisation.

Prasad Gowra, managing trustee of Smiles, an old age home in Hyderabad, said that outsiders had been barred from the premises and that gatherings and cultural programmes had been cancelled. The home accommodates around 50 senior citizens, he said, and doctors would start visiting the premises twice a week for checkups.

“We are educating them and making sure that they do not panic,” Gowra said. “We have sufficient stocks of food and medicines to last us a month. The most important thing is for senior citizens to communicate with us if they feel anything.”

Many elderly people continue to work and do not have the luxury of self-isolation. Credit; AFP

In isolation

Across the globe, public health experts have suggested that practicing social distancing and limiting human contact could control the disease from rapidly spreading and not overburden public health systems. Heeding this advice, senior citizens who live with relatives or on their own have also resorted to isolating themselves.

For 77-year-old Usha Singh, this meant stopping her evening walks two weeks ago. The Noida resident who lives with her son has even more reason to fear after a positive case of coronavirus was detected on March 17 from Sector 100, where she lives. The person who tested positive had returned to India from France.

Since she has diabetes and high blood pressure, Singh has isolated herself in her room. “I read about this [virus] during Holi but I did not know it would spread,” she said.

For the past week, 81-year-old TD Sundararajan and his wife Prema Sundararajan, 74, have isolated themselves in their house in Chennai. They order their groceries from a local store, buy vegetables from vendors who come to their doorstep while maintaining a safe distance and pay most of their bills online, said TD Sundararajan, who is a theatre artist.

Both he and his wife are borderline diabetic and understand the need to stay away from crowds, especially given the current situation. “We have been watching TV and following instructions like washing hands regularly,” he said. “We have stopped going to crowded places and temples.”

The couple regularly speaks to their children and grandchildren who live abroad and watch movies to pass their time. “There is nothing to complain about since there is video conferencing,” he said.

For TD Sundararajan, isolation at this time is imperative. “They are anyway few testing kits and at least we need not go out and create more problems,” he said. “We are susceptible to it and can pass it on. It is everyone’s responsibility for the country and for the society. Doctors and medical workers are putting their lives at risk.”

But social distancing is not an option for several senior citizens who continue to work in blue-collared jobs and in the unorganised sector. If they stop working, they will starve.

“Most of the elderly still continue to work as daily wagers and do not even have a pension,” said Himanshu Rath, founder of Agewell Foundation, a non-profit that works for the welfare among the destitute elderly. “But the anxiety levels are very high because of the media exposure. Social distancing is not an option or practical for them.”