2 May 2022

Disabled people were right about govt's poor Covid-19 response

12:15 pm on 2 May 2022

By Chris Ford*

Opinion - The government must be held accountable to ensure it addresses its poor Covid-19 response to the disability community, writes Chris Ford.

Older man in wheelchair wearing face mask.

It is no longer mandatory to wear face masks in health and aged care facilities after the government announced all remaining Covid-19 restrictions were being dropped from 15 August 2023. Photo: 123RF

Recently, the Human Rights Commission [HRC] came out with a report that addressed the government's poor Covid-19 response to the disability community. Their report provides an accurate critique of the government's efforts, or more accurately, partial efforts, to meet the needs of disabled people, particularly during the Omicron outbreak.

The main themes that emerged from the Commission's analysis derived from feedback gained from the disability community, disabled people's organisations [DPOs] and service providers. This feedback included (and this will be no surprise to people who have been reading my other commentary on disability and Covid-19) significant concerns with communication, including official communications from government agencies in that 0800 phone lines and websites don't work for everyone; difficulties in staying safe during the pandemic, which manifested themselves in difficulties accessing vaccinations, masks, Covid-19 information and accessible information about facial coverings exemptions; the lack of support for disabled people and their whānau who had to isolate; and disruptions to disability support services including to home and personal care support.

Other issues traversed included the unavailability of ordinary health services to disabled people at both the primary and secondary (hospital) level. Given that disabled people have poorer health outcomes than the general population, this wasn't great either. Nevertheless, an overstretched health system has seen already health marginalised communities like the disability community, Māori and Pacific peoples fall further behind in health outcomes due to the pandemic, something that will have to be addressed in the years ahead.

The review also touched on the lack of educational support for disabled children and students during the Omicron emergency. In this space, the Commission found that many disabled students and their whānau were disadvantaged by not having access to online learning due to schools and other educational providers having variable policies around who could access it. After all, online-based learning and working has been a boon for disabled students and workers (including myself) during this lockdown but not having ready access to this in educational settings has affected the ability of many younger disabled people to learn, a factor that will likely exacerbate the already wide gap in educational outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students, something that will have to be rectified in coming years too.

Ultimately, the Commission identified the primary reason behind all the above mentioned failings in their statement. It stated: "The aspirations and needs of disabled people and their whānau do not appear to have been given prominence in government policy and decision making throughout the pandemic. This has been amplified during the Omicron outbreak. The pre-Omicron experiences of disabled people and their whānau have also reduced their level of trust and engagement during the Omicron phase."

The words "do not appear to have been given prominence in government policy and decision making," are, in my view, an understatement. Simply, my own and other disabled people's experiences of dealing with Covid-19 has been already been very stressful. Here I will cite my own experience in that I have faced delays in receiving personal protective equipment for me and my home support worker, and neither I did not receive any communication via text about a vaccination appointment after having registered my details on the government's Covid-19 vaccination website prior to having my first vaccine dose, and I have also endured other experiences too numerous to go into here over the last two years.

Thankfully, though, after having received the required Covid-19 vaccinations, I have not succumbed to Omicron yet but I'm beginning to wonder that if I contract the disease (and it maybe a case of when, not if) how would the health system support me and countless other disabled people who will be infected and need to self-isolate effectively? Obviously, I and others still have questions which need urgent answers to them.

Still, all of this stress could have been avoided had the voices of disabled people been heard from the outset. I believe that all these shortcomings emanate from the fact that we have a disablist state which seems to give us only a token voice when we actually need a full one. I say this because I know that while some crucial Covid-19 government advisory panels contained disabled people, they were effectively not listened to, a fact acknowledged in the Commission's report.

However, all is not lost in that the HRC made some great recommendations to ensure that real systemic change happens for disabled people in the Covid-19, health and pandemic response spaces both now and in the future.

These included, for example, that government should take immediate action to work in partnership with disabled people and their whānau, and DPOs to ensure that disabled people had access to resources like information in accessible formats, and to diagnostic tests. In the medium to longer term, the HRC recommended that government must protect disabled people and their whānau for the remainder of the pandemic and that this could be done through consistently applying a disability lens to all decision making around it. The Commission also talked about how government and disabled people should co-design systems and policies for disability inclusiveness and begin work on transforming society's cultural assumptions around disability.

Already, the fact that the HRC has been working on examining the government's flailing Omicron response around disability has prompted relevant agencies to take some long overdue but welcome action. This has been evidenced, for example, by the Ministry of Health's decision to make the process of applying for facial coverings exemptions easier and in the government's announcement that these cards will be legally recognised.

Associated with this have been the tentative beginnings of a roll out of clearer messaging around Covid-19 and disability. This has included a Ministry of Health advertisement that I was delighted to see on YouTube last weekend that features a young disabled woman conveying the request for viewers to respect people like her who can't legitimately wear a face covering but for those who can to wear one when required to do so in order to protect people like her and everyone else. This is the simple messaging that I and other disability community members were hoping to see come from the Ministry a lot earlier than this - perhaps when the facial coverings mandate and exemption process came into effect? At the end of the day, it's better late than never!

My hope is that government will fully action the report's recommendations and there is no doubt in my mind that disabled people's organisations, as well as disabled people and our families/whānau, will hold them to account to see that they do.

Inevitably, there will be further waves of this pandemic before it subsides and then, sooner or later (as any health scientist will tell you) another pandemic caused by a newly-discovered virus will one day emerge. When these pandemic challenges come, I would like to see this and any future government take into full consideration the needs of disabled people, Māori, Pacific and other health disadvantaged communities as one of the highest priorities and aided by plans that are fully co-designed by representatives from these communities, including disabled people.

Both present and future governments owe this to disabled people who have unnecessarily given more than enough in this pandemic alone.

* Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher. He also works as Senior Kaituitui for Disabled Persons Assembly New Zealand and as a research assistant at the University of Otago. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

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