“Oldies at the Bottom of the Grim Reaper Hierarchy” During the Covid-19 Pandemic

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Gemma Carney, Stephanie Maguire and Bronagh Byrne. Click here to access the article.

Writing in the Times in March 2020, Janice Turner concluded that in the grim reaper hierarchy of the coronavirus pandemic, older people were at the bottom. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how right Turner was. Ill-prepared and under-resourced, society and government failed to protect those who could not protect themselves. Policy-makers’ failure to recognize social care as a necessary element of a functioning health system has since been identified as one of the many mistakes made in the early weeks of the pandemic.  

A great deal of both newspaper coverage and academic work has been published on the many excess deaths of older people, as well as the scandal of how care homes were managed and the neglect of disabled or vulnerable people during the early months of the pandemic. Little in-depth, methodical analysis of the role of the media during the pandemic has been undertaken, though. Yet the media played a vital communications role between government and citizens. Communicating high quality and accurate information to a mass audience was vital in the early weeks and months of the pandemic. This research takes a detailed look at what was communicated, for better or for worse. 

While any government can be forgiven for jumping to conclusions at the beginning of a once-in-a-century pandemic, it was surprising to see just how quickly age became the reason used to explain deaths and survival rates from the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020 mainstream newspapers were reporting that age might be used as a rationale if medics were forced to choose between patients given the limited number of Intensive Care beds available. The point is that while age became a central focus for national policy and debate, its usage was often misleading or downright dangerous. This was particularly apparent in early newspaper reports. For instance, no sooner had social distancing become a requirement than we saw younger people being represented as party-going, virus super spreaders (link to our article here).

Given their track record of witch-hunts and victim-blaming, we were curious to see how UK newspapers, thrust into the role as prime communicators of the government’s emergency powers, communicated risks around death. Our article investigates how newspapers conflated age and risk of death in those early, panic-stricken months of the pandemic in the UK. 

Our results cast a harsh light on how structural inequalities reinforce who is represented as at risk or to blame at times of crisis. This flows between policy and societal levels. Allocation of blame and risk is mightily reinforced by the fourth pillar of democracy — the press — whose role was particularly important in those early weeks of the pandemic. In the absence of knowledge about the new virus, public health policy-makers used age as a blunt instrument to divide people into ‘high’ and ‘low’ risk populations. Age intersects with other inequalities. So gender, poverty, general health and type of housing combine with age to influence a person’s capacity to avoid contracting covid-19 or, if they did contract it, surviving the illness. None of this was taken into account by either policy-makers or those reporting on the crisis. So, when the UK’s first death occurred it was reported as that of ‘a woman in her 70s’ (MailOnline, 6 March 2020).  In the rush to reassure the majority of the population, newspapers chose to focus in on heightened risk of death for those who were either old, disabled or both. 

Our detailed and methodical analysis of newspaper reports stitches together a compelling narrative that national newspapers represented the old and disabled as a problematic minority which must be managed by the majority. With echoes of previous studies showing how poverty is used as a ground to vilify or pity, our research revealed the extent of unconscious ageism in UK newspaper reporting. Some of this ageism was positive – such as the press reports hero-worshipping Captain Tom Moore. Most were negative – reporting deaths according to age, disability or ‘underlying conditions.’ The government’s request that over 70s shield in their homes was critiqued by older letter writers who called for their civil liberties to be protected. 

By undertaking this critical, societal-level analysis of how age was used to frame risk during the pandemic we hope to draw attention to the role of societal ageism (and ableism) in stifling the political will needed to establish a decent, humane and well-funded system of social care in the UK. 

About the authors

Gemma Carney is Senior Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast.

Stephanie Maguire is Research Associate at Ulster University.

Bronagh Byrne is Senior Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast.

This research was funded by an Economic and Social Research Council rapid response grant. 


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