How will disabled people cope with Omicron in the community?

4:38 pm on 29 January 2022

By Chris Ford*

Opinion - Undoubtedly, we as New Zealanders now have to face the realities of this new hugely transmissible variant. For the vast majority of non-disabled people, there will be natural support systems and structures in place to facilitate home-based isolation and recovery.

Vaccination Centre Sign

Chris Ford got his booster shot at a walk-in accessible vaccination centre but he's heard not everyone in the disability community has had an easy time getting access. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Spare a thought, though, for the disability community that will face both new and pre-existing barriers as a result of this most highly infectious Covid-19 strain.

As a disabled person, I started thinking about this issue and it really came to the fore for me in recent days as Omicron finally waltzed out from its MIQ launching pad and into the community.

In this regard, it was hearing at a meeting about a disabled person's experiences with getting access to a home-based Covid-19 vaccination that really got me concerned. This person had called the Covid-19 disability helpline to be advised that while they could definitely get their own disabled child (who has a serious fear of needles) vaccinated at home, they would need to wait at least a fortnight to access this service.

Personally, I found it great to have been able to go into a local walk-in accessible vaccination centre (as I did over the festive season) to get my booster jab.

However, hearing this person's account made me think about how disabled people in this or other difficult situations like living in remote rural areas - and who might really need a home-based vaccination - could get one in a timely way. In other words, how will they fare given what seem to be impossible wait times? Have the Ministry of Health any plans to address this significant barrier for those needing to access this service?

Then I further translated this example into thinking about how some disabled people might cope with Omicron itself.

Take, for example, the government's advice around people with Covid needing to self-isolate at home should they become infected. Of course this is sound advice, but for disabled people who live alone or have few support systems, will the ministry connect them with community agencies who can provide this?

Also what about a scenario where a disabled person happens to be living with whānau who then all become ill due to the virus? Will disabled people in these situations receive the ongoing support they need through community agencies?

I only hope that the ministry have accounted for all the above scenarios in the questions health workers will ask disabled people who are impacted by Covid-19 - and that any needed supports are actually put into place.

Also, what if an infected disabled person needed to be moved to a community-based care facility (which is one step short of a hospital stay)? It's reassuring for me that we have one, in the form of a former holiday park, in my own area of Dunedin. However, have the Ministry of Health and district health boards worked with disabled people and their representative organisations about ensuring that such facilities are accessible, especially for people with mobility impairments like myself, around the country?

I only hope that they have.

Ultimately though, what will happen if and when the pressure of the Omicron outbreak grows and the stresses mount on our health system, especially given that it will be the first time this might happen in the pandemic? What if case numbers in our hospital system grew to near crisis levels, especially in high dependency or intensive care units?

My fear is that in this case, disabled people who become severely ill with Covid-19 could be subjected by stressed medical professionals to 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders. This could be the case as there are overseas precedents for this happening. In the United Kingdom, at the height of their Covid-19 pandemic wave in mid-2020, it was found that some doctors were placing such orders on disabled patients without either their consent or knowledge.

Put simply, I don't want the same thing happening here. Any Covid-19 treatment protocols should be ethically sound and based on human rights considerations. I also hope that frontline medical staff and decision makers will retain such considerations at the forefront of their minds even when the inevitable pressure does come on as it could well do with Omicron.

However, I acknowledge the small but not insignificant changes that have come about for disabled people since the beginnings of the Covid-19 crisis. These have included the availability of more accessible vaccination options; the increasing distribution of Covid-19 information in a wide range of accessible communication formats such as, for example, New Zealand Sign Language; and the creation of a Covid-19 disability team whom are available via Healthline.

All of these changes came about due to pressure from disabled people's organisations and the wider disability sector.

Nonetheless, there is an urgent need for the government to continue this communication with disabled people and our representative organisations as Omicron surges forward so that we don't get left behind in the response to this vicious variant.

*Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

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