Nation’s shame over ‘forgotten’ Australians
Australians living with disability were "neglected" and "left feeling invisible and ignored" during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disability royal commission has found.
The royal commission's report into the effects of the pandemic on people with disability was tabled in parliament on Monday, uncovering "serious failures" by the federal government in its COVID-19 response.
"From the very outset of the pandemic, people with disability were extremely anxious, stressed and frightened as they found themselves severely affected by an unprecedented health crisis," the report said.
"Their already high levels of anxiety, stress and fear were immeasurably heightened by the feeling that they had been forgotten by governments and the general community, and that the responses to the pandemic had ignored the severe challenges they faced."
The federal government welcomed the report's findings, but insisted it acted decisively to protect Australians with disability.
"Australia acted swiftly in responding to protecting both the overall population and in particular our most vulnerable Australians," the statement said.
"Based on our best advice, Australia was one the two earliest nations to have a special, dedicated COVID response plan for our disability community. From very early on we took action.
"We have been able to keep Australians with disability overwhelmingly safe with significantly lower positive case numbers and lives lost in the disability community, than in the broader Australian population, which itself has been one of the strongest outcomes in the world."
Health Minister Greg Hunt said 690,000 masks, 30,000 gloves and 85,000 goggles and face shields had been provided to the National Disability Insurance Agency since the pandemic began.
But commission chair Ronald Sackville said people with disability and their carers were not provided with adequate personal protective equipment or testing.
He accused the federal government of having no systematic plan in place when the pandemic was declared.
Mr Sackville also argued service providers were not given clear guidance on infection control, leading to confusion and fear.
He said "serious deficiencies" remained with data collation, meaning an accurate picture of infection and mortality rates among those with disability was impossible to obtain.
The report also found no Australian government agency responsible for disability policy made "any significant effort" to reach out to either individuals living with disability or their representative organisations.
That began to change only when advocates and experts called on the government to improve consultation, and after the royal commission aired its concerns in March, Mr Sackville said.
"The failure to consult contributed to the Australian Government neglecting to develop policies specifically addressing the needs of people with disability and the challenges confronting them in what was an unprecedented emergency," he said.
"All of this had significant adverse consequences for people with disabilities. Many of those consequences very likely could have been avoided with appropriate consultation and better planning."
The report recommended all agencies responsible for shaping the COVID-19 response establish formal processes to involve people with disability in the decision-making process.
Mr Hunt said the government had implemented a co-ordinated response to the pandemic that included consultation with the disability community.
"The development of this plan involved significant collaboration between governments at all levels, disability and health sectors, academics and people with disability," he said.
"New flexible approaches for service delivery such as telehealth, home medicines delivery and infection training has changed the landscape of the healthcare sector."
The recommendation was one of 22 made to ensure the group was not "forgotten and ignored", Mr Sackville said. It called for the Department of Health to establish a unit specifically focused on disability programs during future crises, or a resurgence COVID-19 pandemic.
"The pandemic appears to be under control in Australia. But we know that until the vaccine actually arrives and can be administered, then a recurrence is possible," Mr Sackville warned.
He called on the government to implement the recommendations as soon as possible.
Originally published as Nation's shame over 'forgotten' Australians