“We Should Protect Our Grannies and Grand-Dads”: COVID-19, Ageism, and the Balkan Lockdown

Are voices of the elderly being literally and figuratively left out of the Balkan media?

By: Milika Domanovic

“We should all protect our grannies and grand dads” – this is a common phrase touted by politicians, media, and celebrities across the Western Balkans, as countries struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many use the phrase to show compassion—but the phrase is often inadvertently pushing an ageist narrative in the media. In a move to protect those over the age of 65 from the Coronavirus, this population is not being treated as citizens, but as grandparents; it’s an action that reduces them to a stereotype. The only exception is the minority who are epidemiology experts, or part of expert teams, where the media has emphasised their age to qualify their experience. Somehow, the media has forgotten to extend this assumption of knowledge to their peers, and instead pushes a narrative that they are weak, fragile and vulnerable.

“We, old people, are citizens like anyone else,” Vesna Rakic Vodienlic, a law professor at the UNION University in Belgrade, told the local Pescanik publication.

“We can keep the [social] distance, we know what the word ‘infection’ means.”

After more than six weeks in lockdown, it is clear that this narrative is shaping some of the restrictions targeting elderly populations across the region—restrictions that may, or may not be working. In Serbia, anyone over the age of 65 has been forbidden from leaving their homes, except for once a week to shop for groceries between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00 AM—while the policy is designed to protect elderly populations from the virus, it has resulted in inadvertently forcing them together during this time, making it impossible to observe the rules of social distancing.

Now, Serbian citizens aged 65 and older will be able to take one half an hour walk three times per week, as long as they stay within 600 meters of their home. Other Balkan countries have also removed certain restrictions as of this week—but that only came after weeks of protest on social media over their ineffective, and in some cases, discriminatory policies. It isn’t just the curfew and the quarantine; across the region, several governments employed SMS messages as a means to communicate with the public, using dramatic language and warning of an “Italian scenario” to convince them to stay inside. Many criticized this tactic as scaring people—particularly the elderly—rather than informing them.

Adding to this, authorities in the region did not hesitate to employ questionable, new means for communication across the country. One of these was a series of SMS messages, using dramatic language to warn citizens that the country was approaching an “Italian scenario.” Many criticized this as scaring people—particularly the elderly—rather than informing them.

But the media’s hyper-focus on elderly people has also left out essential facts about the pandemic, particularly the fact that those with pre-existing conditions are equally—if not more—at risk of contracting the disease. Likewise, these populations have not been similarly advised to quarantine, even though they are equally at risk. It has also lead to younger people being more lax around following the rules—even though the virus can impact them just as much as it can the older population.

Would the media narrative be different if the first cases of COVID-19 had disproportionately impacted children and young people, rather than the elderly? An article in the Atlantic titled “Ageism is Making the Pandemic Worse” engages in a thought experiment, asking exactly this question. Would the response have turned out differently? If the answer is yes, then that is as clear a definition of ageism as any.

How can journalists fix this? On top of everything else, there is the digital divide—which now, as more and more communications and social interactions shift online, is only becoming more relevant. If people over the age of 65 are staying home, most people are not in a position to see them, and hear their stories—making it that much more important that journalists figure out innovating ways to reach them, and make sure that the media doesn’t stereotype them as either overly submissive or happy rebels.

As journalists across the region and around the world experience a crackdown on freedom of press, it is important to remember that questioning the measures is not the same as disrespecting the rules or denying the gravity of the situation. Both the pandemic—and our governments’ handling of it—is revealing cracks in an already fragile democracy, and it is important to be able to access information, and hold these institutions to account. While rules such as social distancing, and other precautionary measures are no longer debatable, it is important to include all minority groups in discussions about why a lockdown—particularly a strict one—is necessary, how it works, and how to ease the restrictions, so as not to cause a second surge of the disease.

The voices of the elderly should not be ignored—in the Balkan region, or anywhere else in the world. Rather, they should be treated as essential to navigating our way through the next steps.