If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything about disability, it is that we are not “all in this together”. Disabled people accounted for 60 per cent of Covid-related deaths in the UK up until February 2021, according to the Office of National Statistics. While some of these deaths might have been due to underlying conditions which put older and disabled people at greater risk, analysis by the ONS suggests that a significant part of this is due to the disproportionate disadvantage faced by disabled people across society.
This finding will come as little surprise to anyone who has followed disability issues across the pandemic, as it has become clear that disabled people have at best been an afterthought in the government’s pandemic planning. Disabled people have had to fight for access and against discrimination at every corner, as illustrated by the recent successful case won by a deaf woman against the government which breached its legal obligation to make its briefings accessible through sign language interpretation. Disabled activists have also had to battle against the Coronavirus Act, which removed safeguarding processes to make it easier to detain people under the Mental Health Act; NICE guidelines based on the clinical frailty scale which excluded otherwise healthy disabled people from intensive care based on biased assumptions about their quality of life; and vaccination guidelines that initially did not prioritise many disabled people, in particular those with learning disabilities.
While all of these policies were eventually overturned, this came at a cost for many disabled people, exacerbating the anxiety that if we were to need hospital treatment after catching Covid-19, then not all efforts would be made to save our lives. This was confirmed by reports that some medical practices were applying ‘do not resuscitate’ orders to patients without their knowledge and consent, again targeting particularly people with learning disabilities. The situation was particularly dire for older and disabled people who live in care or residential homes, with a 46 per cent increase in deaths during the first wave of the pandemic. Lack of PPE for staff and residents, inadequate access to testing and vaccinations and strict national and local policies restricting visitor access violated the rights of care home residents in England, according to Amnesty International.
For disabled people in the community, social care support was often reduced to nothing overnight, with care packages being replaced with one phone call a week, undermining independent living and autonomy. Many disabled people also struggled to access essential items, due to food shortages caused by panic buying, difficulties accessing delivery slots for groceries, and limited public transport options.
Disabled people in work are more likely to be in frontline or precarious work, and many experienced financial difficulties as a result of the lockdown. This was again exacerbated by policies which provided inadequate protection, for example by ‘recommending’ furlough for those shielding rather than mandating it, which led to some employers telling shielders to claim statutory sick pay instead. While the move to remote working, which was previously often denied to many disabled and non-disabled people, opened up opportunities for some, the move to online also presented new challenges to many, due to platforms which were not designed with accessibility in mind, and disabled people making up 56 per cent of non-internet users.
Many of the issues faced by disabled people in the UK and other rich countries are also experienced by disabled people in other countries, including access to food, education, employment, and discriminatory attitudes in healthcare. However, in many low and middle-income countries, these are often compounded by poverty, poor infrastructure, and significant stigma and discrimination which persist as the legacy of colonialism, despite the widespread ratification of the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Disability and poverty are increasingly linked, and Covid-19 is likely to be the most significant setback for global poverty reduction efforts in the last few decades.
During the first wave of the pandemic, hunger was a more significant threat than Covid-19 to many disabled people in low and middle-income countries, where people typically suffered from a lack of access to social protection, with relief programmes that were often inadequate, poorly designed and – at worst – actively excluded those already in receipt of disability benefits. Healthcare remains unaffordable for many in these regions, and beds and toilets in quarantine centres were often inaccessible for disabled people. In one international survey, 52 per cent of participants stated that they were denied or deprived of access to treatment, including reports of sign language interpreters refusing to attend hospital appointments, and an autistic child being denied a Covid-19 test as he was “too difficult to assess”. One of the most shocking examples of neglect during the pandemic is that of 16-year-old Yan Cheng from China, who received no alternative care from the government after his father and sole carer were forcibly quarantined.
The pandemic has exposed that our approaches to global development are unsustainable. The current focus on ‘quick fixes’, providing time-limited funding for specific projects in a single sector, often does little to address the larger systemic issues, leading to a lack of resilience and fragmented infrastructure that is unable to stand up to crises such as a pandemic. Development initiatives can often perpetuate disabling conditions, by reducing disability to an economic issue or labelling disabled people as ‘vulnerable’ without interrogating the causes of this vulnerability. Images of disabled people continue to be used frequently as symbols of poverty and humanitarian crisis, evoking harmful ideas of disabled people as objects of charity and pity. Despite this, most development initiatives do not take disability into account, with only 5 per cent of direct overseas aid dedicated to disability programmes. And the government official development assistance cuts are likely to exacerbate the challenge to ensure a disability-inclusive recovery from Covid-19 which ‘builds back better’ by creating resilience for the future.
While all these facts paint a very bleak picture, it is important to recognise the resilience of disabled people and our allies. Disabled people’s organisations across the globe were often instrumental both in holding governments to account and providing concrete support to disabled people on the ground. Trade unions have stepped in supporting disabled people facing difficulties in the workplace, for example those who felt forced to return to potentially unsafe workplaces by their employers, and more recently, the Trades Union Congress has called on the government to provide greater legal protection to those with long Covid by including it in the Equality Act as a condition that is automatically recognised as an impairment. It is now time for the left to build on these efforts and work with disabled people’s organisations to ensure that the recovery from Covid-19 across the world is disability-inclusive.
In the UK, the current easing in restrictions is leading to further exclusion for many, including those who are unable to be vaccinated due to health reasons or are still at higher risk despite vaccination. And many fear that ‘going back to normal’ will remove some of the progress made during the pandemic, such as access to remote working, telehealth, and online events, and may actually cause a reversal in disability rights. Many disabled people have already shared evidence of barriers such as pavement and accessible parking bays being blocked due enable social distancing, and some have experienced Covid-19 safety measures being used as a reason to deny disabled people access for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
It is also crucial that we recognise that the pandemic is far from over for many across the globe, and will not be until everyone, including in poor countries, has access to vaccination. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that all of those most at risk are able to get vaccinated, through sharing adequate supplies with low-income countries. It is crucial for us to listen and engage with reports from disabled people in low and middle income countries, such as the International Disability Alliance’s “Voices of People with Disabilities During the Covid-19 Outbreak” series, to understand the diverse issues they have faced during the pandemic and what we can learn about activism and positive change from their experiences.
As we continue to adapt to living during the pandemic and its aftermath, it is crucial that activists and policymakers on the left continue to put disability issues at the heart of their actions. This means including ongoing dialogue with disabled people and including disabled voices in all decision-making, in the spirit of the global disability rights motto “nothing about us without us”. Rather than going ‘back to normal’, we should make efforts to learn lessons from the pandemic on how our society needs to change to be more fair, accessible, and sustainable for all of us.