Inquiry Finds Omicron Response Put Disabled People At Risk – Human Rights Commission

Responses to the spread of Omicron caused considerable stress, confusion and put the well-being of disabled people at risk, an urgent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission has found.

“The aspirations and needs of disabled people and their whānau do not appear to have been given prominence in government policy and decision making throughout the pandemic,” says Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero, “and some groups reported reduced levels of trust and engagement for disabled people and their whānau during the Omicron phase.”

Tesoriero launched the inquiry on March 11 into the support of disabled people during the Omicron outbreak using powers under the Human Rights Act 1993.

“I was concerned about whether disabled people’s rights were being upheld,” says Tesoriero.

The inquiry gathered information from 30 organisations and networks about what they understood to be the current experiences of disabled people, and their whānau.

The report and recommendations to the Government released today is available on the Human Rights Commission website. (Also attached)

Tesoriero says that the move from alert levels to the COVID-19 Protection Framework saw a reduction in public health measures.

In combination with the emergence of the Omicron variant and widespread community transmission, risks to disabled people, tāngata whaikaha Māori and their whānau have increased.

Mitigations were needed in relation to the greater risk for many disabled people and tāngata whaikaha Māori of getting COVID-19 as well as issues such as risks to disruptions in services, access to essential services and needing information tailored to their needs.

Ms Tesoriero acknowledged that the Inquiry was told about some good experiences such as great support from Māori and Pacific organisations, and the support and information disabled people provided to each other, but mostly experiences were stressful.

Many submissions shared experiences of their frustrated attempts to be heard during the earlier stages of the COVID-19 response. Some organisations talked of being involved in disability advisory groups, but this did not guarantee that the views and concerns of disabled people and their whānau were listened to or acted upon.

Submissions also emphasised the worry and stress that came with the shift from ‘Alert Levels’, to the introduction of the COVID-19 Protection Framework.

Many of the issues disabled people identified in the first two years of the COVID-19 response have worsened, while at the same time COVID-19 restrictions and the protections they offered disabled people and their whānau, and communities, have lessened.

Tesoriero says the purpose of this Inquiry is not to comment on the Government’s move away from the elimination strategy, but to highlight the crucial importance of putting appropriate mitigations in place to address those increased risks for disabled people, tāngata whaikaha Māori and their whānau.

“Most importantly, their voices must be central to the ongoing response to COVID-19.”

Submissions also called for a need for stronger commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi by government agencies, in a way that creates conditions for tāngata whaikaha Māori and their whānau to express mana motuhake, and to ensure that government services and funding meet their aspirations and needs.

Tesoriero says that the government has responded positively and with urgency to some of the issues raised during the Inquiry.

“This must be sustained and pivot the way governments respond to the needs of disabled people and tāngata whaikaha Māori now and in the future.”

The main things people told us were:

  1. There were lots of problems with communications

It was hard to find information, it changed quickly, was in lots of different places, not always in alternate formats, and there was a heavy reliance on digital information, and phone lines did not always have text alternatives

  1. Staying safe during the pandemic

It was hard to get access to or afford the things that help keep people safe, like masks or finding accessible vaccination sites

  1. Support to isolate safely

Messages said to prepare but many disabled people cannot afford to stock up food or medication in advance, online deliveries do not work for everyone, and housing situations may not be suitable for isolating or to arrange alternative support if usual support workers are unwell.

  1. Disrupted disability support services

People were very worried about how they would get support if their usual workers got sick. It seemed there had not been good planning for this, the messages from government said people needed to work it out for themselves which meant people felt left on their own and people told us they have had changes and disruptions to support.

  1. Unavailable health services

People had problems connecting with their usual health services like the GP and were worried whether they would have what they needed to keep safe if they had to be in hospital.

  1. Lack of support in education settings

People did not always get the right support from schools when they wanted to keep learning from home to stay safe when schools opened again

The key recommendations to the government are:

Taking immediate action

Immediately work in partnership with disabled people in all their planning and putting in place all the other recommendations to:

  • improve the information about COVID-19 and Omicron so it is easier to find it and use
  • make sure there are more and easier ways to get what people need like masks, rapid antigen tests, a support worker if the usual worker is sick, more help if someone has to isolate at home if they are sick
  • set up a 24-hour 7 day a week service people can contact and find a way to get their support if their usual support person is not able to come to work
  • giving people more flexible options including how to get the right support for learning if they are staying away from school.

Preparing for the continued responses to COVID-19

  • Thinking ahead, the government must plan much better to make sure people will keep getting their support when workers might get sick with COVID-19 or for future emergencies.
  • Give more funding to Māori and Pacific organisation who people are finding very helpful in supporting them.

In the medium-term:

Designing systems and policies for disability inclusiveness

  • Making sure there is much better information collected about tāngata whaikaha Māori and disabled people and experiences of COVID-19/Omicron so that we can see all the time what is happening and if anything needs to be done differently.

Transforming society’s assumptions about disability

  • Making sure disabled people are part of making decisions about COVID-19 at all levels of government.
  • Giving much better support to whānau and families and other people who care about and support tāngata whaikaha Māori and disabled people.

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