Disability and COVID-19: A deadly virus made worse by discrimination

·4 min read
 A disabled badge holder only sign is seen in north London. Thousands of people with hidden disabilities have been given blue badge parking permits since new rules were introduced. (Photo by Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
The coronavirus pandemic has 'excluded' disabled people, according to campaigners. (SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

The coronavirus crisis has exposed existing inequalities in the UK and “excluded” disabled people from society, campaigners have warned.

As the UK grapples to manage the crisis amid fears of a second wave across Europe, charities have said that disabled people are being discriminated against, leaving them vulnerable to the virus.

The statistics are stark.

Disabled women who identify as “limited a lot” are 3.2 times more likely to die of the virus than non-disabled women, while disabled men in the same category are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by COVID-19, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed.

According to the ONS, “limited a lot” signifies someone “usually needing regular, continuing support from family members, friends or personal social services for a number of normal daily activities”.

coronavirus deaths by disability
Coronavirus deaths by disability.

When fully adjusted for factors such as occupation, region, area deprivation and socio-economic position, the data found that “limited a lot” disabled women are still 2.4 times more likely to die of coronavirus than non-disabled women, and “limited a lot” disabled men are 1.9 times more likely to die than non-disabled men.

The data also showed that 30.3% of COVID-19 deaths in England and Wales were disabled people in the “limited a lot” category and 28.9% were disabled people in the “limited a little” category between 2 March and 15 May.

Disabled people make up 16% of the working adult population, and 45% of adults over state pension age. They are more likely to live in poverty: 19% of families with at least on disabled member live in relative income poverty, compared to 15% of families with no disabled members.

There is wider evidence to suggest disabled people are not getting sufficient support during the pandemic.

According to the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel Big Disability Survey, 76% of the 677 people surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the help provided by the government.

A third said they felt neglected by the government, citing a reduction in the number of health visits; a deterioration in their mental health; and difficulty sourcing personal protective equipment as reasons for their frustration.

Coronavirus and disabled women

Sisters of Frida, a volunteer-led disabled women’s organisation, found that increased social isolation during the pandemic is causing psychological distress for disabled women

The organisation is calling for more inclusive networks of disabled people locally and online to better support and empower this community.

Co-director Lani Parker said: “We need to start looking at the institutional oppression that we face. That includes disabled people of colour.

“We need to look at that word ‘vulnerable’. It’s about who is made vulnerable rather than an assumption that someone is vulnerable to the virus.

If people think somebody is vulnerable, they strip them of their agency, warned Frida co-director Lani Parker. (Getty)
If people think somebody is vulnerable, they strip them of their agency, warned Frida co-director Lani Parker. (Getty)

“What are the factors through which we are made more vulnerable to the virus? Most of those factors will be structural discrimination and complex and intersecting issues.”

Parker, who is a wheelchair user, said people were surprised at seeing her outside at the beginning of the pandemic, that they had assumed wheelchair users had to stay inside and shield.

She said: “If you think somebody is vulnerable, you strip them of their agency, they don’t have thoughts and feelings of their own, and they are not part of a community. That is the way that ableism and the exclusion of disabled people works.”

Although some disabled people may be more likely to suffer from pre-existing health conditions, making them more susceptible to complications caused by COVID-19, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that until more is known about the virus, the reasons behind the ONS data cannot be fully understood.

Two million ‘identified as extremely clinically vulnerable’

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We know that many people with long standing, limiting illnesses or health conditions are at higher risk of poorer outcomes from coronavirus and we are doing everything we can to support them.

“Over two million people were identified as clinically extremely vulnerable and advised to shield, and we have provided guidance to GPs and clinicians to support those most at risk.

“We continue to carefully monitor and consider the specific risks that disabled people face to ensure we are best able to protect them.”

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams said: “You can see a disproportionate impact on how COVID has affected disabled people.

Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, speaks during the second day of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. Picture date: Monday September 26, 2016. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams warned of the "disproportionate impact on how COVID has affected disabled people". (PA)

“This pandemic has exposed the inequalities, not just of people with protected characteristics such as disabled people, but also of socioeconomic groups.”

Abrahams, who represents Oldham East and Saddleworth, said many factors can cause increased isolation and vulnerability in disabled people, as can government measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

She said: “Digital exclusion has particularly affected disabled people and it has been very clear how this has affected disabled people’s ability to stay in touch with family and friends – it has made it a lot worse.”

Coronavirus: what happened today

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