How the Global Pandemic has Revealed Institutional Ableism on a Grand Scale

For nearly a year now, reports covering the COVID-19 pandemic have focused on the potential risks to those classed as ‘vulnerable’. While the public was reassured that ‘only’ those with underlying conditions were at risk, this ableist approach left many concerned that the government’s framework for tackling the coronavirus was inadequate and subjected those who are most vulnerable to unacceptable levels of risk. The question is, how deeply rooted is the institutional ableism?

A Planning Failure

There is no shortage of people questioning the government’s approach to managing the pandemic – from the way school closures were handled to the implementation of measures to reduce the spread of infection. One of the key factors that made planning and strategizing so difficult was the fact that the government does not maintain an accurate record of clinically vulnerable individuals. 

Despite a disaster planning exercise completed in 2016 that was intended to improve preparedness for a pandemic, there was no record of who would need the most support. The lack of cohesion between the National Health Service (NHS) and general practitioner (GP) records meant that the scheme designed to identify and support those with health conditions that make them extremely clinically vulnerable had to be established while the pandemic was in progress, meaning that many were overlooked. 

Estimates from the National Audit Office suggest that more than 2 million people were initially left off the shielding lists, and the messaging and outreach programmes designed to help them fell short of the mark in a number of areas. Government advice was not clear, charities reported that they had struggled to get information from the government in order to support their users, and it appears that there is no way to assess the effectiveness of the £300 million scheme due to lack of available data.

The failure to include specific guidelines for the management of the disease in care homes showed that the elderly were being overlooked, and those who were clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) within care homes were not factored into the guidance at all. Of the 45,000 CEV that were residing in care homes when the first guidelines were released, around 4,000 died from COVID-19 by December 7th 2020.  

Media Bias in COVID-19 Death Reporting: Evidence of Institutional Ableism?

Even the way that the infection and death rates are published is a cause for concern. Throughout the pandemic, reports of the number of deaths are often followed with reassurances about the proportion of those who had ‘pre-existing conditions’. Using these statistics to soften the blow of the death toll has revealed a worrying lack of empathy among those managing the response to the virus. Not only are those with health problems struggling to live in isolation, but their deaths are almost ‘written off’ in the press as though their underlying conditions make them expendable. 

The approach to supporting those with disabilities has been further compounded by the government’s response to the spreading pandemic. In February 2020, as other countries were closing their borders and imposing strict lockdowns, UK citizens were concerned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was failing to attend crucial meetings with Cobra and shipping vital personal protective equipment (PPE) to China.  

With shops, pubs and leisure facilities open as normal well into March 2020, many members of the public were concerned that the UK response to the virus was nowhere near robust enough. Their fears were well-founded and as the death toll rose, so did the ableist slant in the headlines. The government was so keen to deflect attention away from the failures in their strategy that they started to focus on the number of deaths among those with pre-existing conditions, with headlines that gave the impression that those deaths were no cause for concern. 

A combination of government spin and the media’s attempts to generate stories led to an untenable situation for those trying to combat ableism. The government’s attempts to minimise the impact of their inaction met with the public’s frustration at lengthier lockdowns to create a situation whereby clinically vulnerable individuals were effectively being blamed for the prolonged restrictions. 

The Prime Minister expressed concerns about the economy, adding to the public’s fears about the potential lasting effects of the pandemic and bolstering enthusiasm for schemes such as ‘eat out to help out’ which saw a brief upturn in the hospitality sector before all the businesses involved were closed again. A report from the British Chambers of Commerce shows that the scheme failed in its attempts to revitalise the hospitality industry, but did cause a spike in cases.

But the attitude that is becoming increasingly mainstream – among a public with limited patience for continued restrictions – is that ‘normal life’ should resume, with those who are most at risk being sacrificed to save the economy. Herd immunity has been discussed almost as though it comes without casualties, despite concerns from medical experts that relying on herd immunity leaves the vulnerable disproportionately exposed.

While the pandemic has seen some spectacular displays of humanity and sacrifice, there is a danger that disabled citizens will continue to suffer disproportionately if the current government is allowed to promote economic stability over our ethical and moral responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in society. 

Jo Smith is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of specialist immigration lawyers who help those in need of legal support and advice.

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