COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout: Why are People with Disabilities Left Behind?

Australians with disabilities account for 20% of the population yet only 4.4% of these immunocompromised groups have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Despite the fact that the Australian government has put them in the first 2 phases of the national vaccine rollout.

But why is it that in Australia, it’s the ones who are already either immune-compromised who are left at the end of the line or worse, shunned, for wanting a vaccination? Why do Australians with disabilities need to jump through hoops and collect paperwork just to get vaccinated?

The Vaccination Rollout Priority

Australia started its vaccine rollout in late February 2021. With a total population of 25.36 million, we would need to vaccinate at least 60% to 70% to achieve herd immunity. And in any crisis, the most vulnerable, in this case those whose immune systems are already compromised must be prioritised.

And so, the Australian government set priority groups to orient the healthcare sector on who to immunise first. For Phase 1a, frontline healthcare workers along with the aged and disability staff and residents in care are to be prioritised.

They should be followed by those in Phase 1b which includes those with health issues and disabilities along with other frontline workers in the healthcare industry and essential services.

The vaccination protocol lays down the guidelines in simple terms: vaccination hubs will be opened in various locations and state governments will serve as the conduit of information and organisation of eligible citizens included in the priority phases.

It looks simple and neat on paper. However, this is not the case on the ground.

Asking the Disabled to Jump Through Hoops and Loops

People with disabilities have repeatedly reported they have been rejected when they approached vaccination hubs all over the country. Due to some wily citizens forging doctor certificates of their “disability”, healthcare workers have been increasingly distrustful of physician notes and letters brought by people with disability keen to get the jab due to their health issues.

ABC News even reported of a case of a female trio with various disabilities determined to get their jab at a hospital only to be shunned away by a nurse even after presentation of her doctor’s note.

One of the women had to push through complicated booking procedures, convoluted steps, and hard-to-find vaccination centres just for her to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Vaccine Jab Hub Gatekeepers

As if the bureaucracy of getting a vaccine jab cannot be more complicated, it hinders most healthcare professionals who regularly work with their disabled patients to contribute to the rollout. As the government is adamant of having Australians, whether they have a disability or not, to go to designated vaccination hubs or miss out on their doses. While some hubs are in hospitals, most are in out-of-the-way locations which may not have accessibility features. Some vaccination hubs may not even be conducive to those with sensitive mental health issues and requirements.

This now begs the question, where are the healthcare workers who frequently work with these priority groups? It turns out, even if they wanted to help, they couldn’t. The COVID-19 vaccination provider guidelines instruct people with disabilities to look for general practices physicians who have registered under the program. Due to this requirement, hospital doctors and nurses who care for their disabled patients are not allowed to administer the jab themselves. And if a disabled patient cannot leave his house, he must look for one who’s willing to do a house visit. 

As Australia continuously lags behind other OECD countries in terms of vaccinations, the government must address these barriers in order to protect the most vulnerable groups in our population.  

Once the disabled group’s needs are considered with their primary healthcare professional recognised as a vaccine provider, maybe the dismal 4.4% of vaccinated disabled group would finally increase in good proportion to the rest of the Australian population.

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