After the pandemic’s deadly first peak in April 2020, it became clear that Sweden’s quest to protect its elderly had failed.

My home country had become the last outpost for a “herd immunity” approach, with the government ignoring international calls for quarantine. Sweden’s strategy had two central goals: Limit the spread to prevent overburdening the health-care system, and protect its older citizens.

It did neither. The virus made its way into nursing homes, spreading from staff and visitors to residents, until the government, too late, banned visits on April 1, 2020. A month later, a report showed that nearly half of the 2,075 deaths in the country — one of the highest per-capita death rates in Europe — had occurred in nursing homes, and 90 percent had happened among those aged 70 and above.

At the time, the failure sparked an intense debate about who was to blame and whether a lockdown would have helped. But today, as criticism of authorities has shifted from failed containment to slow vaccination rollouts, another question has loomed over me and my fellow Swedes: Is there an inherent disregard for older people in my country, a supposed bastion of social welfare and equality?

Countries are not as different as they make themselves out to be, says psychologist Toni Antonucci of the University of Michigan, who studies social relations across the life span, a topic she explored in the 2019 Annual Review of Developmental Psychology. Rather, “the difference is what they say, culturally.” Antonucci adds that she’s skeptical of the “communal” versus “individualistic” divide. Instead, she thinks another factor drives the view that older adults are disposable: the decommissioning of the elderly.

“In many countries in Europe, you are mandatorily retired,” Antonucci says. “You might be a world-renowned scientist, but you still have to retire at 60 or 65.” That’s despite a 2000 EU directive prohibiting age discrimination in employment; the European Court of Justice has since ruled that mandatory retirement ages — giving employers the option to terminate contracts of older workers — are legal if achieving a “legitimate aim.” Governments, in other words, can prescribe mandatory retirement ages into countrywide (or sector-specific) law by claiming that younger people need access to work. And employers can include mandatory retirement ages in contracts, claiming, for example, that it spares older people from the embarrassment of being dismissed when no longer able to do their jobs.

Read the full article at Knowable Magazine.