Concept image showing Covid treatment
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyApril 28, 2022

Disabled people sidelined during omicron, inquiry finds

Concept image showing Covid treatment
Image: Tina Tiller

While most of us have experienced stress during the pandemic, some communities have suffered more than others during the most recent omicron outbreak and the rush to get back to ‘normal’, according to a new report.

Over the course of the pandemic, many groups have highlighted their concerns over decisions made by the government in response to Covid-19. This is not about hospitality, tourism, Grounded Kiwis, anti-vaxxers or other groups who have attracted the lion’s share of media and political attention, however. It’s about the 24% of the population who are disabled, and who have experienced high levels of distress and anxiety trying to access vital information, resources and support tailored to them.

This inequity led disability rights commissioner Paula Tesoriero to launch an urgent inquiry into the support, or lack of it, for disabled people and tāngata whaikaha (disabled Māori) during the omicron outbreak.

That report was released last week, and it found numerous areas where support for disabled people fell short. “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,” Tesoriero said at the time of the report’s release, adding that “some groups reported reduced levels of trust and engagement for disabled people and their whānau during the omicron phase”.

“Responses to the spread of omicron caused stress and confusion, putting the wellbeing of disabled people at risk,” she said.

She noted that Māori and Pacific organisations had taken up the slack in some circumstances, providing much-needed support.

Disability organisations and service providers have welcomed the report and its recommendations for future improvements.

Prudence Walker, CEO of the Disabled Persons Assembly, said the findings came as no surprise. “We’ve been hearing from our community who have felt they have not been a priority from the beginning. I’d like to see disability issues taken seriously in the future and not an add-on.” She said a lack of real engagement with disabled communities meant little targeted information was made available, and there were delays in the provision of alternative formats for those who required them.

Many disabled people are isolated and experiencing unrecognised mental distress because of the heightened health risks they face in during the pandemic, Walker said. For many, life is not returning to “normal” in the same way as it is for others.

Another issue was masks, which some disabled people are unable to wear. “The (original) mask exemption process had good intentions but no one saw the mask mandate spreading. In all the years I have worked in the sector I have never seen so much outright discrimination,” Walker said. Exempt people had to “prove” their trauma or impairment in shops and supermarkets, sometimes facing abuse. Anti-mask people made the problem worse. Now, more than two years into the pandemic, the government has just announced a new, clearer and legally enforceable mask exemption card.

“Our experience of the Covid response is that it has been largely reactive, with little forward planning or consideration of the needs of disabled people,” said Peter Reynolds, CEO of the NZ Disability Support Services Network.

“Providers have struggled to access information in a timely manner for their staff and the people they support. Vaccination mandates, while supported in principle, were not well thought out. At one point the disability sector was given four working days to implement the mandate and terminate staff who did not comply.

Access to vaccinations and appropriate PPE such as high quality masks had been “problematic”, and never properly prioritised as it was elsewhere. “Australia, for example, made access to vaccinations and PPE freely available to disabled people from the outset,” Reynolds said.

The focus of the inquiry was on swift action to address the increased risk for disabled people created by the move from alert levels to the Covid-19 protection framework, more widely known as the traffic light system.

Problems identified in the report relate to communications, safety in the community, disrupted support services, safety when isolating, unavailable health services and lack of support in education.

The inquiry heard that it was hard to find information; that it changed quickly, was in lots of different places, and not always in alternate formats; that there was a heavy reliance on digital information; and that phone lines didn’t always have text alternatives.

It was hard to get access to or afford the things that help keep people safe, like masks or finding accessible vaccination sites.

Told to prepare, not everyone can afford to stock up on groceries or medication in advance, online deliveries aren’t for everyone, and some people’s housing is not suitable for safe isolating or for alternative support if usual support workers are ill. Planning for these situations was lacking.

There were 14 detailed recommendations in the report. Those needing urgent attention, in partnership with disabled people and tāngata whaikaha, included:

  • Improve information about Covid-19 and omicron, and make it easily accessible for all disabled people.
  • Make it easier for disabled people to access masks, rapid antigen tests, a support worker if the usual worker is sick, and more help if a sick person has to isolate at home .
  • Set up a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service to help people get support if their usual support person is not able to come to work; and,
  • Provide more flexible options including how to get the right support for learning if disabled children are staying away from school after reopening.

Other recommendations with a medium-or longer-term focus included: planning for service disruption, including disabled people and their whānau in Covid-19 decision-making, resourcing Māori service providers and providing targeted support for tāngata whaikaha Māori, improving data collection, and addressing the digital divide. A longer-term recommendation was to work to transform society’s cultural assumptions about disability and disabled people.

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