Easing COVID-19 restrictions won’t mean freedom for people with disability

Posted 2 years ago by Anna Christian
Without access to the vaccine and with the increased chance of contracting COVID-19 in the community, it is likely people with disability will feel unsafe leaving their homes. [Source: Shutterstock]
Without access to the vaccine and with the increased chance of contracting COVID-19 in the community, it is likely people with disability will feel unsafe leaving their homes. [Source: Shutterstock]

The term “Freedom Day” is being used by many Government leaders to signal the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s not a day many people with disability are looking forward to.

New South Wales became the first State in Australia to reach the target of 70 percent of eligible people being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 yesterday, 6 October, and the State is bringing in relaxed restrictions on Monday.

These relaxed restrictions include ten people at home (up from five), double the number of guests at weddings and funerals, and indoor swimming pools reopening to the public.

The new Freedom Day restrictions will only be available to people who are fully vaccinated and People With Disability Australia (PWDA) Senior Manager of Policy Giancarlo de Vera says Freedom Day will not arrive for people with disability.

“It’s for those who have the luxury to be vaccinated, what we know is that we [people with disability] should have been vaccinated earlier on and we weren’t vaccinated earlier on because we were de-prioritised in the rollout,” he says.

“This freedom is something that we can’t obtain through no fault of our own, so it’s coming at the cost of our freedom in a lot of ways and I don’t think the non-disabled community understand that their freedom will come at the cost of our livelihoods.

“Whether or not we are comfortable with the term it’s kind of misdirected – it’s more a question around ‘why do we feel like we haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated and whose fault is that?’

“I think it’s quite squarely the Government’s fault for not rolling out the vaccine as well as they could have.”

The number of double vaccinated people with disability living in National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) shared accommodation across Australia had not reached 70 percent before New South Wales hit its own 70 percent target.

For NDIS screened workers across Australia, the reported double vaccination rate was 63 percent at the beginning of this week.

But those national figures are not broken up into States and Territories and the Government still isn’t reporting the number of vaccinated people with disability who are not NDIS participants, meaning the rates which are reported don’t accurately reflect the actual numbers of people with disability who may be impacted by restrictions easing.

“What we do know is that the vaccine rates of people with disability is generally lower than the general population and what concerns us is that we don’t actually understand the extent of the problem. So we have the data for people with disability who are on the NDIS but not those who aren’t on the NDIS,” explains Mx de Vera.

“Without knowing that information transparently we can’t really talk about how the rules will impact people with disability.

“What we do know is that there is much more granular data that exists that we’ve been privy to but we haven’t had the opportunity to have that transparent conversation publicly because the Government hasn’t been inclined to release that information, despite us making the request.

“We’re calling for Governments to work with each other and actually come together to release the information that they have.

“Without knowing how the vaccine rates are looking in different parts of Australia according to different disability types, we don’t know how to approach communication problems and if we could resolve that it would actually help with the coordination of supply.”

This issue is impacting the understanding of the vaccination status of First Nations people with disability in particular, according to First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN) Australia Chief Executive Officer Damian Griffis.

“One of our big concerns is that the vaccine rollout has been using NDIS participants to identify vaccination rates of disabled people. However, there remain very low rates of participation in the NDIS of First Peoples,” he says. 

“As a result, measuring vaccination rates through the NDIS is unreliable, particularly with First Peoples.”

Mr Griffis says the vaccine rollout has failed First People with disability and that urgent action is needed to make sure they are safe.

“Too many First People with disability can’t access support during lockdown and are facing huge barriers to accessing the vaccine,” he says.

Without access to the vaccine and with the increased chance of contracting COVID-19 in the community as more people begin to move around and meet in larger groups, it is likely many people with disability will feel unsafe leaving their homes.

Mx de Vera says, “there absolutely is a lot of fear, there’s a lot of concern”. 

“The thing that we’re hearing a lot of is that people will be self imposing a lockdown.

“It’s the only option that a lot of people will have and so that’s an immediate response to the fear around what will happen and the fact that we don’t know the extent to which the opening up measures will impact people with disability across disability types.”

In addition to asking the Government to release more accurate vaccination data, PWDA is advocating for targets, timeframes and plans to be put into place to better support people with disability to access the vaccine before the whole of Australia is open and they are excluded from the community.

If you need COVID-19 related support FPDN has resources on its website, as does the PWDA website and Disability Gateway, although Mx de Vera says an important “first port of call” for people with disability is their GP, as they know about the individual’s health conditions.

*Mx is a gender neutral title used by people who don’t identify as being of a particular gender or people who don’t want to be identified by gender. [Definition from Merriam-Webster online dictionary]