On Sunday, new possible lockdown measures were leaked to the press amid fears over a coronavirus resurgence. Just 24 hours earlier, the government paused shielding in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and announced it was safe for “extremely vulnerable” people to leave their homes and return to the workplace. People with severe asthma and cancer patients may soon be reading headlines of spiking infection rates on their morning commute, themselves at risk of becoming a statistic.
Disabled people make up two-thirds of coronavirus deaths in the UK, according to the latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). You would be forgiven for not knowing that. These lives have not made the 6pm news. Newspaper front pages have not featured their faces. Ministers have barely uttered a word.
The ONS estimates that disabled people are up to 11 times more likely to die of the virus. It would be easy to assume this is solely due to health problems and this is certainly a part. But the ONS analysis suggests deprivation and housing are key factors – disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than others – as well as medical failings that mean doctors often overlook disabled people’s health concerns. This is the collateral damage of Britain’s longstanding ableism. Coronavirus has not created inequalities; it has exposed them.
Few things demonstrate this more than the state’s failure to keep those with underlying health conditions safe during the pandemic. Plagued by design flaws and poor communication, the government’s scheme to protect shielders was inept from the offset. All while the wider safety net has been shown to be unfit for purpose.
Throughout lockdown, social care was stripped back to the point of danger and indignity, and services for disabled children all but disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people were left out of emergency benefit increases, while food parcels were withheld from people missed off the government’s list for having the “wrong” disability. At least one man is thought to have starved to death.
It is remarkable how little attention any of this has received, but then perhaps it is exactly as expected. I wrote at the start of the pandemic that “underlying health conditions” would become an excuse for excess deaths. It is sad, the story goes, but they were probably going to die anyway. Their lives mattered but not as much as those of normal people. When a decade of austerity has seen emaciated disabled people or severely ill people die after being forced to work, it is hard for the public to be shocked. The new normal somehow looks very much like the old.
The same prejudices that have enabled us in recent months to gloss over the number of disabled people who have died are the same ones that make it easy to excuse the conditions under which we are expected to live. Millions of people with underlying health conditions in this country have been trapped inside their homes since the spring, and are now expected to return to normal life overnight. There has been next to no discussion about how prolonged isolation has affected our mental health or of the support the state should be offering.
Compare the understandable concern being voiced at the suggestion (later ditched after a backlash from ministers) of over-50s having to shield with the nonchalant acceptance of disabled people having done the same all along. It is hard to argue that people with disabilities being stuck in four walls is a public policy issue when cultural prejudice says this is entirely natural. We are forced to spend our time arguing the most obvious truths: that misery, poverty and isolation are not inevitable parts of disability, just as early death isn’t either.
There needs to be an independent inquiry in the coming months into the deaths of disabled people from coronavirus, including the intersection with race and class. Council-run schemes to deliver food and medicine should be continued for those who need it, while furlough has to be extended past October if “extremely vulnerable” employees can’t work safely. Disabled people should not be cannon fodder for Boris Johnson’s economic recovery plans.
Even changes in day-to-day interactions will need to consider disabled people: long socially distanced shopping queues are impossible if you’re in pain, face masks useless if you have breathing problems. There needs to be a public education programme to explain to the public the legal exemptions for some disabled people before even more feel trapped at home. One woman who briefly removed her mask on a train so that her deafblind sister could read her lips has already been verbally abused.
None of this will bring back the people we have already lost, but it could go a long way to protect those who are still here. All too predictably, the price of Johnson’s early failure to contain the spread of the virus has been paid by those that could least afford it. The mass deaths of disabled people in this country are a stain on the government. First, we must notice the mark.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People
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