The pandemic has increased the duty we have to other members of our communities.

Different groups of people have different interests, but balancing these interests can cause conflict and friction.

Given Australia’s hard lockdown stance, many people could not wait to lift the restrictions and return to their daily routines. However, in relieving people from these restrictions, we also leave vulnerable populations exposed.

Who do we have a more significant duty towards?

There were discussions around school kids and their right to access education, conversations about teen and adult mental health, and calls to vaccinate the elderly. However, a group that was affected by all these considerations and needed further contemplation was ignored – those with disabilities.

While we are interested in protecting all people, if we do not ensure the safety of the most vulnerable in a population, we fail – we blatantly show that we do not value their needs in conjunction with evaluating a safe society.

The Ethics Centre’s Dr. Simon Longstaff stated recently on Q&A that ‘it is unforgivable that we have to have this conversation … where the most vulnerable members of our community have been left exposed. We should not … expect those people with … vulnerabilities to bear the burden of what we would prefer to do.’

While mental health costs of lockdowns are in favour of opening, Dr. Longstaff warned that ‘we as a society are going to have to accept that those who become infected and die will be something we have to wear on our own conscience.’

Phase 1A of Australia’s vaccine rollout, was initiated in February with the intention of targeting essential healthcare workers and those most vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with disabilities. However, in June only 1 in 5 people with a disability had been vaccinated, and less than 50% of support workers had received both doses of a vaccine. Yet, there was a dramatic increase in October to 70% of individuals being vaccinated.

The marked uptake was likely due to lockdown measures being lifted, as many people wanted the vaccine but could not receive it due to lack of accessibility.

In order to receive a vaccination, people had to contact their GP or later on could book one online.

On the face of it, these distribution procedures seem reasonable but there were significant problems that severely limited access. Having to make a GP appointment simply to obtain a vaccination referral was an unnecessary step that made it particularly difficult for those with disabilities, many of whom are dependent upon others to assist them.

Further, despite being a part of Phase 1A, many people with a disability could not receive the vaccine until lockdown had been lifted and support networks were reinstated. There was no follow-up, reassurance, or support to ensure that those who wanted to receive the vaccine could promptly do so. Therefore, as vaccine distribution moved from one phase to the next, it left an increasing number of those with disabilities behind.

Secondly, for similar reasons, internet access is more difficult for many of those with disabilities and the Department of Health website was not particularly user-friendly. It did not include larger, more legible text or have text to speech which would have helped those with limited sight or those who have trouble reading. Additionally, the high demand for vaccination meant that timeslots were severely limited and if they were available, they were usually inconvenient.

This was especially problematic for those with disabilities because it was not always clear which facilities were equipped with accessible features. To obtain informed consent, centres would need to have staff who are able to understand sign-language and provide information leaflets in braille. Much of this burden of providing additional support and care fell on already stretched family members and carers who, because of lockdown, may already have been working from home and home-schooling children.

What should Australia have done?

First and foremost, the relevant authorities should have ensured that almost 90%+ of each phase was vaccinated before moving to the next phase. In doing so, they would have needed to provide adequate support for those in Phase 1A and set up additional measures as required.

  • Vaccine facilities should have been situated close to care facilities.
  • Carers and parents should have been able to book their vaccines with individuals.
  • Vaccine facilities ought to have implemented “safe” times or locations whereby those with disabilities could show up with no appointment.

What is perhaps irreconcilable is that while these requests/services were prepared during the pandemic, they were simply unavailable due to lack of federal organisation. There are many hospitals around Australia that have rehabilitation medical departments, all of which have specialised members and facilities. Despite notifying the government that they have experience and the equipment to convert into vaccination sites for those living with disabilities, they were not used.

The distribution of the vaccine in Australia was not organised in a manner that was empathetic to individuals living with a disability. I agree with the Royal Commission and Dr Longstaff that ending lockdown and opening without first ensuring high vaccination rates in this vulnerable community was unconscionable and unforgivable.

The lockdown was organised in a manner that did not respect the needs of particular populations. It once again highlights the inequity that people with disabilities face and places the responsibility of any harm to these individuals squarely on society. It was our duty to protect one another from harm during the pandemic, and we have failed a significant group within Australia’s population.