Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 18 January 2021. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2020.
This article was first published on March 16, 2020
Introduction by Croakey: People With Disability Australia (PWDA) has called for people with a disability to be included in the management of the COVID-19 outbreak.
CEO Jeff Smith has urged the Federal Government to urgently update the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus to include the needs of people with disability.
“People with disability must have a place at the table when talking about how we respond to this emergency,” he said in a statement.
The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) says it is collaborating with key government and health agencies and developing an Agency Pandemic Plan in line with the Government’s Emergency Response Plan.
Meanwhile, leading researchers have released recommendations for guiding development of a targeted approach for people with disabilities, as Professor Anne Kavanagh and Associate Professor Gemma Carey report below.
Anne Kavanagh and Gemma Carey write:
During the COVID-19 epidemic in China, a 16 boy starved to death when his father and brother were placed in quarantine after contracting COVID-19. Chinese officials failed to provide adequate care in their place.
In Australia, this is a reality we too could be facing. More than that, the structure of the NDIS – whereby a ‘gig economy’ model sees for example 10 workers coming into one home to perform intimate tasks, then going on to other participants’ homes.
Without the right practices in place, this will spread COVID-19 to thousands of people with a disability who may be more vulnerable to the disease than other parts of the population. We may also see people with disability unable to access personal care services that they need to survive.
Leading health and disability researchers are calling for urgent action from State and Federal governments to develop a targeted response to COVID-19 for people with disability, their families and the disability service sector.
Australians with disability are a vulnerable population in the COVID-19 pandemic because they are at elevated risk of morbidity and death due to underlying health conditions. Furthermore, at the best of times, the health sector is often inaccessible and does not meet the needs of many people with disability.
Critical workforce concerns
Right now, we need clear and consistent messaging about hygiene and best-practice delivered across the disability workforce.
Even if with this, the pandemic will place great stress in an already pressured workforce. Workers will inevitably get sick and need to self-isolate.
We need a supplementary workforce to step up under these conditions. The health sector has taken proactive steps to increase its workforce calling on senior medical and nursing students, retired doctors and public health physicians. A similar response is needed for the disability sector.
We also know that when the disability sector has not been able to support people with disability, the last resort has been hospital. With hospitals stretched to their limits they will no longer be able to be the provider of last resort.
The Government has had a targeted response for the aged care sector but we have not seen the same for the disability sector despite the fact that they have many similarities including congregated settings, a precariously employed and inadequately trained care workforce and families and carers who may face significant challenges meeting the care needs of people with disabilities.
We have made a series of recommendations for government to consider in developing a targeted approach for people with disabilities. Our recommendations include:
- a focus on improving the health sector’s capacity to respond by resourcing current medical services that are specialised in disability to upscale their operations
- creating a dedicated hotline for people with disability, their families and disability services
- ensuring all health care facilities including testing sites are accessible to people with disabilities
- ensuring all information and content is accessible and updated frequently.
We have also developed specific recommendations for the disability service sector. These include rapid upskilling in infection control; that personal protective equipment be made available free as it is in the health and aged care sectors.
We need the NDIA to financially guarantee services if they need to increase their supports to participants who do not have adequate funds in their plans; financially compensate workers who are unable to go to work because they need to self-isolate; and provide families with additional supports if they need to care for someone with a disability without usual supports.
We also propose the government consider calling on allied health students such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy who are often well trained in occupational health and safety measures and infection control.
With social distancing people with disabilities will experience significant disruption of their daily routines. Some people with disability may find these changes difficult to comprehend. Those in congregate settings such as group homes may be placed at higher risk of violence, abuse and neglect because they may need to leave in a confined space for periods of time. We must ensure that does not happen and are asking the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Ccommission to develop strategies to prevent this happening.
Our recommendations are targeted at ensuring that people with disabilities and their families are safe and survive this pandemic. There is a very real risk that they will not get the health care they need and that disability services are unable to provide for basic needs.
There is a need for action at the highest levels of government, across the National Disability Insurance Agency and Quality and Safeguards Commission to prevent the deaths of people with a disability in the coming weeks and months.
Read more here.
Professor Anne Kavanagh is Chair in Disability and Health, Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
Associate Professor Gemma Carey is National Research Director, Centre for Social Impact, UNSW
See Croakey’s coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak.