Half of all people who contract and die from COVID-19 globally are people with a disability, according to a sobering new report that calls on Australia to urgently prioritise disability inclusion in its development and pandemic aid response across the Asia-Pacific region. 

The report by international development organisation CBM Australia and the Australian Disability and Development Consortium (ADDC) — which involved thorough consultations with disability groups worldwide — concluded that people with disabilities will be further isolated as countries emerge from the pandemic unless global COVID-19 responses actively target them in recovery planning.

Australia, CBM Australia CEO Jane Edge says, is uniquely positioned to save lives. 

While the Australian Government has formerly led the world when it comes to disability inclusion — mainly through prioritising people living with disabilities in previous aid policies — Edge says the past two foreign aid budgets have seen a notable drop in core disability inclusion funding.

“[Australia was] one of the first to sign the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the first to introduce a strategy for disability-inclusive international development,” Edge said in a media release. “However, at a time when the need is greatest, investment in core disability funding has been reduced. We need to see an urgent increase in investment in disability-inclusive recovery in our region.”

One in seven people live with some form of disability, and over 80% live in developing nations. 

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that people living with disabilities — particularly women and other under-represented groups — may be at greater risk of contracting and enduring severe health complications from COVID-19.

People living with disabilities are also likely to be disproportionately socially and economically impacted by the pandemic.

"People with disability may be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 because of barriers to implementing basic hygiene measures, such as hand-washing (hand basins, sinks or water pumps may be physically inaccessible),” the WHO wrote at the time. “[There may also be] barriers to accessing health care and public health information and difficulty in enacting social distancing because of additional support needs or because they are institutionalised.”

Despite warnings, there has been a “catastrophic failure globally” when it comes to adequately including people with disabilities in COVID-19 responses worldwide. In turn, the pandemic has “dramatically deepened pre-existing inequalities for people with disabilities,” resulting in poorer health outcomes, less access to education, reduced services and support and increased violence and abuse, according to the report.

Just 15% of people with disabilities in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines received financial assistance amid COVID-19.

CBM Australia and ADDC have made six key recommendations for world leaders.

It is essential, they say, that all governments give people with disabilities priority access to COVID-19 vaccinations — and simultaneously ensure people have appropriate access to vaccination centers and that all information is provided in accessible formats like braille. 

Governments should also ensure people with disabilities are fully consulted when forming all future COVID-19 aid responses.

“Finally, mainstream development programs, including education, livelihood, health, social protection and gender-based violence programs, should consider the specific needs and barriers to access for people with disabilities,” the report states. “Barriers often include inaccessible information and infrastructure, attitudes of service providers and financial cost.”


Demand Equity

Australia Must Prioritise People With Disabilities in COVID-19 Aid Response: Report

By Madeleine Keck