Being a disabled person is inherently political, our experience of the world is unavoidably dictated by the choices our political leaders make. The inevitable ripples of influence a global pandemic has means the rest of the population’s choices now impact our lives, and our deaths. As a disabled, Blak woman, I have always lived with the consequences of public policy and as the COVID19 pandemic has evolved it’s become clear yet again, how inept the Australian Government are, and how their policies perpetuate large scale discrimination, and ableism.
In early 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison began to describe the developing COVID situation as "... a health crisis, not a financial one". In our capitalist society, it’s dangerous to be seen as costing more than you contribute, and life as a disabled person means there’s always a price for engaging with the world. You pay for mobility, wheelchairs can cost over $30,000, and that's before you even consider how to transport one. You pay with time and energy, when you're forced to attend yet another medical appointment, sometimes under threat of having your financial aid retracted. We pay in poverty, as not only are people with disabilities woefully underemployed, we’re underpaid. The 2020 Royal Commission Into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability found that people with disabilities have an unemployment rate of almost 50%, and that the median income of disabled people was less than half that of non-disabled people.
It was during 2020 that disabled and chronically ill people became increasingly concerned about the threat of this virus. The phrase ‘flatten the curve’ entered our vernacular and to most people when lockdowns began, restrictions and quarantining were happening on a large scale, COVID-19 became a very real hazard for disabled and non-disabled people. The impacts of these changes were profoundly felt by the people in the disability community, with many losing access to food, support, medicines, and any chance of making a wage dried up. People were, and still are, unsupported for days without access to personal hygiene, life saving medical procedures, food and or comfort, some being left to die alone.
While it is necessary to make swift decisions to respond to the changing situation, the government failed to consult with anyone in our community to properly identify, and/or respond to the needs and concerns of the disability and chronic illness community. As the inimitable Stella Young once said, “...too often, we fall into the trap of thinking 'equal' means 'the same' and that we achieve equality by treating everyone identically.” Instead, we were left to navigate the challenges of obtaining necessary and lifesaving resources during an unprecedented, world wide pandemic. All the while hearing the government tell us that we need to ‘focus on jobs’ and ‘reopening the economy’.
Most people did ‘the right thing’ — for a while. They stayed home, socially distanced, they sanitized and stockpiled for the benefit of the ‘weakest link in our chain’, i.e. the immune compromised, those with pre-existing conditions, the elderly and frail. They were supported to do this, with government guidance and information, inclusive access to health care suddenly became available, and a supplementary income (but not if you were on a disability pension).
It’s now been two years since the pandemic began and people are tired of it. We’ve now got a significant amount of the population vaccinated, sometimes even three or four shots worth, and those unaffected by chronic illness or disability have an acute case of compassion fatigue. This fatigue and self-interest has led to eye wateringly high cases of COVID, with hospitalisations or death apparently only more likely for those with pre-existing conditions.
Recently, in a shockingly cruel statement. Turtle Island’s CDC Director, Rochelle Walensky, said
“The overwhelming number of death [sic], over 75% occurred in people who had at least 4 comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with, and yes really encouraging news…”
Oh comorbidities! It's a word that provides a flicker of relief to the non-disabled, it’s used to deflect the fear and threat of being at risk. It’s wielded to help justify the ‘Let her rip’ attitude, because COVID is only serious to the sick and disabled right? Most members of the disability community are medically complex and we’re already aware how disproportionately we’re impacted by illness. We don’t find it encouraging that it’s ‘only us dying’.
We plead with the powers that be to listen to our collective wisdom. We warned them what would happen if people were left to rely on personal responsibility and insisted on 'living with COVID' and 'keeping the economy strong' for the rest of us. Our pleas for help were left unanswered, our warnings left unheeded. And now so many of our industries and systems buckle under the weight of dangerous mishandled global pandemic.
The disability community has been forced to stay away from our friends, families, support networks, medical care, jobs, but no matter the precautions we take the ramifications of our government’s ineptitude is proving to be unbearably and unnecessarily cruel. Until the time comes when the truly equitable support and protection of people with disabilities becomes a priority for our society, we will continue to see unacceptable numbers of preventable deaths of disabled and chronically ill communities, and (yet more) blood on the hands of the Australian Government.