Urgent calls for targeted COVID-19 response for people with disability
16 March 2020 at 4:51 pm
The disability community fear that people will die without a coordinated plan
Australia needs a targeted response to coronavirus for people with disabilities and the disability service sector, experts warn.
Leading health and disability researchers say people with disability are a vulnerable group in the COVID-19 pandemic and that the health and disability sectors were underprepared for the crisis.
People with disability have also expressed concerns they won’t be able to access basic daily supports if they need to self-isolate, or if their support workers become sick and are unable to work.
In a joint statement, disability researchers have called for urgent action to ensure that if carers get sick, there will be a standby capacity of disability workers to continue providing care.
Researchers have noted that the government has a targeted response for the aged care sector, but not for the disability sector.
This is despite both sectors sharing many similarities including congregated settings, and a precariously employed and undertrained workforce.
Associate Professor Gemma Carey, research director at the Centre for Social Impact, told Pro Bono News there would be major consequences if action wasn’t soon taken.
She spoke of a recent case in China where a 16-year-old boy starved to death because his father was quarantined in hospital for coronavirus.
“What we have at the moment is a disability system that is very well set up to transmit the virus,” Carey said.
“With the National Disability Insurance Scheme, people won’t be paid if they don’t turn up to caring jobs. So that’s going to disincentivise them to self-isolate if they’re not feeling well.”
Carey added that if people with disability – particularly those with intellectual disability – end up in an overburdened healthcare system, they may not be able to properly advocate for what they need.
She said governments needed to start thinking about how to backfill the disability workforce, which is what’s happening in the health care sector right now.
“If we predict that workers are going to get taken out by the virus, we still need people to come in and fill the workforce gap,” she said.
“So we need to mobilise that secondary workforce, which might involve getting people who are currently in training or social work students to come into the space.”
Researchers made several recommendations for a targeted coronavirus response.
This includes rapidly scaling up the health care sector’s ability to care for people with disability by ensuring COVID-19-related treatments are readily available, creating a dedicated hotline, and circulating accessible information through disability services, advocacy groups and the NDIS.
There were also a range of measures recommended to help upskill the disability workforce in infection control.
Researchers said specialist support services must be helped to remain financially viable, while family and carers of people with disability need to be compensated if they have to take time off work.
They added that the disability service sector must have free priority access to personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitisers.
This statement follows a call from disability advocates last week for people with disability to be included in all plans to manage the coronavirus outbreak.
People with Disability Australia CEO Jeff Smith said the government must urgently update the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 to reflect the disability community.
“For people with disability with NDIS plans, we need contingencies in place to ensure that essential supports continue, such has been outlined for older people,” Smith said.
“For the other 90 per cent of people with disability, we need to ensure that the mainstream health system is accessible, and that we receive equal treatment to non-disabled people.”
NDIS Minister Stuart Robert told Pro Bono News the government had plans in place to ensure a continuation of services, while adding that the NDIA, providers and NDIS participants would be well supported throughout the pandemic.
He said any service disruptions would be clearly communicated, with options provided so that people can continue receiving help.
“I am working closely with my cabinet colleagues, departments and agencies to support a coordinated approach to delivering essential services such as the NDIS to the community,” Robert said.
“The Morrison government has been meeting with stakeholders in preparation of escalation of incidence of COVID-19. I plan on meeting with NDIS stakeholders next week to discuss these preparations.”