As a disabled person trying to ‘live with’ Covid in Australia, every day is a game of figuring out who is least likely to kill me
I’m the disabled guy on several committees, advising governments what to do to keep people with disabilities safe from Covid-19. I know there are good people who have been working very hard on the policy responses, but it’s time to call it out – governments, both state and federal, and all these committees, are failing disabled people.
I haven’t always felt this way, and back in 2020 I was satisfied by the proactive approach that governments were taking. Listening to advice from the council that I chair and with the support of our minister at the time, the Victorian government established the disability liaison officer program that funded staff across hospitals throughout Victoria to help vaccinate people with disabilities. This program continues to do good work, including providing disabled people with access to a limited supply of rapid antigen tests and helping disabled people with Covid to navigate the hospital system.
Following our advice, Victoria also set up the call-to-test service that enables disabled people, who are unable to leave their house, to access PCR tests at home. And the federal government had a plan to prioritise the vaccination of people with disabilities.
In the early days, these committees were achieving things, and it felt like the government was listening and taking action.
But in March 2021, as the royal commission report showed, the vaccination of disabled people was deprioritised. I was expecting disabled people living in residential settings to be at the front of the queue, but no. Ten months on, the latest figures show vaccination rates of disabled people still fall 10% behind the rest of the population and the booster program for people is failing.
And now we’ve had Omicron ripping through our nation, causing mayhem for disabled people who rely on others for daily assistance. January has been a nightmare – battling to get our hands on RATs and N95/P2 masks, rearranging shifts because staff have tested positive, and playing the “who hasn’t got Covid” shuffle. Trying to do the staff roster in January has been a game of figuring out who is least likely to kill me. My lungs aren’t strong enough to blow out a candle and the possibility of dying from this virus is real.
So whenever I hear the governments – and I use the term in plural deliberately – telling me I need to live with Covid, I’m filled with anger and frustration. I’m trying to, but you’re not making it easy. Despite the hard work and strong advocacy, the absence of proactive government policy measures stack the odds against people like me.
There are a lot of things that governments could have done and should be doing to help keep disabled people safe.
Every disability worker should have access to a RAT before every shift and N95 masks should be available and mandatory for all disability workers providing close personal care.
We need to improve ventilation in disability care settings and address the serious workforce shortages.
We must increase efforts to fully vaccinate and deliver boosters to people with disabilities across the country – and boosters must be mandatory for all disability workers.
If we want disabled people to live with this virus in the community, we need governments to take action and put in place evidence-based measures. They must listen to and act on what advocates and health experts are calling for. All of these things are achievable, and if I don’t die, I hope to see them happening. If I do die however, I blame the governments.