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Source: Human Rights Commission

By Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero

Widespread community transmission of COVID across Aotearoa New Zealand is now the reality for us. Now as restrictions are eased let’s think about what that might mean for disabled people.  

Omicron is being framed by many as “mild” or “most people will be fine”. This ignores the concerns and reality for many disabled people, and those with compromised immune systems.  References to “most” leaves out the crucial fact that “some” people won’t be fine. 

While surely unintentional, these narratives are inextricably linked to ableism and create a perception those ‘some’ lives are not worth protecting.  It is a collective duty of government and the public to manage risk for the ‘some’.

These concerns are real. Many disabled people were terrified in the initial stages of the pandemic after hearing overseas reports of ‘Do Not Resuscitate orders’ being applied to people’s medical records without their consent and rationing of oxygen and hospital beds for the ‘young and healthy’ only.  In 2020, nearly six out of every 10 who died with COVID in England were disabled. And those with learning disabilities were six times more likely to die.

Of course, we now have vaccines to bolster our defence. But I ask that from here on, anyone commenting on the effects of COVID acknowledge that for some, the effects can be serious and long-lasting.  I’d also like to hear commentators and leaders keep encouraging measures like masks, social distancing and full vaccination, to protect people for whom Omicron won’t be ‘mild’. 

Many have told me of their fears and concerns about the effect getting Omicron could have on themselves or their children.  At the beginning of the pandemic, we talked a lot about the collective approach to protecting people and many I spoke to took comfort in this.

It’s even more important now to stress this collective approach with widespread infection and reduced restrictions and do all we can to reduce the spread of Omicron.  Having an attitude of “oh well we’ll all get it” puts the lives of many disabled people at risk.   

This risk to disabled people is not just Omicron. The rights to healthcare and health protection are fundamental human rights.  Yet, disabled people face poorer health outcomes than non-disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities.  This is partly due to the many barriers preventing access to health (poverty, transport, inaccessible facilities, not always seeking medical attention). These barriers have not suddenly changed. In fact, with the increased pressure on our health system the pandemic creates, these barriers are potentially exacerbated.

The other way disabled people’s lives get put at risk with a ‘oh well we’ll all get it’ attitude is many disabled people rely on people coming into their home to provide daily care (things like toileting, cooking or getting people out of bed).  The Ministry of Health has acknowledged the potential impact of Omicron on the carer workforce.  I have been told of disabled people not having their support worker turn up because they are a close contact or have COVID.

Family and friends also provide support in our lives, particularly in times of crisis. Many families are already under pressure during this time and asking them to provide additional support to fill gaps is not an option for many people.

The other narrative needing a reality check is personal responsibility for COVID care and self- isolation in the home.  Many disabled people rely on additional supports in less extraordinary times. Public messaging could now be more nuanced to address how disabled people can get this support, recognising not everyone can self-isolate.

We have heard accounts overseas of disabled people who have been given medical advice to stay home because of the risks of COVID.  We need to make sure that disabled people are not further marginalised by feeling they can’t go out because infection control measures are reduced.

I’ve been urging the Government since Covid arrived to develop a cohesive strategy that addresses the needs of disabled people in its COVID response. It must address things like:

  • What and how information is provided to disabled people and the support they can expect
  • Making sure continuity of care is monitored and audited
  • Collecting data to support an equitable population response to managing COVID
  • The support needs of disabled people and their families when self-isolating in the community
  • Addressing workforce shortages in the health and disability sector
  • The supports that need to be in place for disabled people who need medical advice and services during this time. 

Human rights are not just about entitlements.  They are about responsibilities to each-other. If we don’t mitigate the specific risks of widespread Omicron to disabled people as we ease restrictions, then we risk the lives and wellbeing of many disabled people, and those with compromised health. And that’s on all of us.

Paula Tesoriero is the Disability Rights Commissioner at Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, the Human Rights Commission and is available for interviews.

MIL OSI