People with Disability Left Behind in Global Pandemic

18 May 2021

In a global pandemic, it is easy to imagine that those who are most at risk would receive the most protection.

In Australia, that is not the case.

At a public Disability Royal Commission hearing yesterday, we heard startling testimony that most of our country’s most clinically vulnerable citizens had not only been overlooked – they’d been actively de-prioritised.

Evidence was heard that only 127 people with disability living in residential settings had been fully vaccinated under the 1a rollout, with the aged care sector and their workers being considered first for both the vaccination rollout schedule and the now short-in-stock Pfizer vaccine.

People with Disability Australia President, Samantha Connor said that it was appalling that many of the Australians who were most at risk had been left behind.

“Senior Counsel Kate Eastman was right when she described the vaccine rollout as an ‘abject failure’,” Ms Connor said today.

“Only four percent of disabled people living in residential settings have been vaccinated and two percent of their disability support workers…it’s inexcusable to deprioritise disabled people who are clinically at risk because of a ‘potential shortage’.”

During the hearing, both Inclusion Australia chief Catherine McAlpine and NDS CEO David Moody referred to last month’s Senate Estimates, where a committee heard that a plan to include people with disability in residential settings as a priority 1a group was heavily delayed in favour of continuing the Pfizer rollout in aged care settings.

Royal Commissioner Rhonda Galbally asked Mr Moody if he thought the measure reflected a lack of importance when it came to the way people with disability were regarded.

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that, no,” he replied.

Concerns about devaluing and being left behind have been raised consistently by People with Disability Australia and other peak bodies during the pandemic, with a joint Statement of Concern released mid last year to emphasise the importance of ethical decision-making and an open letter from the Board of PWDA, urging state and territory ministers to ensure people with disability don’t miss out.

Associate Secretary of the Department of Health, Caroline Edwards was pushed for details about consultation with people with disability and their representative organisations, but struggled with understanding that disability service providers were not representatives of people with disability. A disability advisory group, comprised of people with disability from key organisations, had not met since early last year, Commissioner Ronald Sackville said.

Outside the Royal Commission, disability advocates have echoed many of the concerns raised by witnesses yesterday.

PWDA Board member Suresh Rajan today raised concerns about disabled members of the CALD community, especially those who had English as a second language.

“Any access by culturally and linguistically diverse communities will be time delayed, because we need it in languages other than English,” Mr Rajan said.

“A lot of the decision-making is done by community groups as opposed to individuals and we need to see far more engagement with those communities, empowering those groups to bring people forward to be vaccinated.”

Ms Connor agreed.

‘Without deep engagement with people with disability, their families and their representative organisations, people with disability will continue to be endangered,’ she said.

“Government must ramp up the public information campaign, provide access both in residential care and in the community and ensure that those who are clinically vulnerable are protected with the vaccine of their choice.

“In a global pandemic, it is unfair and un-Australian to leave those most at risk behind.”

VALID member and Disability Royal Commission witness Uli Kaplan summed it up neatly, in a passionate address to the government and other decision makers.

“You need to understand that this is extraordinarily stressful. Stop saying you’re going to do it and just do it,” Kaplan said.