“It seems like our lives are expendable”

Helen Jones explains what ‘Freedom Day’ means for disabled people

On so called ‘Freedom Day’, instead of celebratory dancing and drinking, many disabled people were reacting with horror and retreating back into a state of isolation. In fact, one in seven disabled people plan to keep shielding despite the lack of support available from the government to do so.

The government’s decision, or apparent abdication of responsibility, has left many of us feeling forgotten and abandoned. Our lives have don’t appear to have been considered in the decision to lift restrictions, and that is crushing:

“I just feel I don’t matter anymore, and I don’t feel part of society.” – N.P., York

Many disabled people are angry at the way we’ve been treated throughout the pandemic, with the latest decision epitomising the government’s approach to disability more broadly. It seems like our lives are collateral damage and expendable for the greater good.

Now that the focus is on personal responsibility, our lives are in the hands of strangers who may have a very different perception of risk and a different level of vulnerability to the virus. The reckless behaviour of one person could kill another.

While government guidance for clinically vulnerable people is available, it does little to advise or reassure. Instead, it suggests we continue doing what we had been: limit contact with others, wear a face mask and ask any visitors to take a lateral flow test. Essentially, it recommends remaining in semi-lockdown.

But it didn’t need to be like this. If measures such as mask wearing and social distancing had been retained, almost two thirds of disabled people would have felt more comfortable going out in public. As it is, only 2% of disabled people feel safe.

Many of us have been shielding for 16 months now and, unsurprisingly, this is creating high levels of social isolation and almost two thirds of disabled people are experiencing “chronic loneliness”. With no clear plan for the future, these figures are likely to get worse. If some measures had been retained, more people would feel safer meeting friends and family and leaving the house.  

People’s mental and physical health has already been impacted by shielding and this will likely continue to worsen. This is especially given the considerable evidence that loneliness increases health risks, including the risk of premature death.

Some will point to the vaccine roll-out as evidence that there is no substantial risk any more. However, there are many people who cannot receive it because of age or health conditions, and certain health conditions and medications reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Further, while vaccines reduce risk, they don’t eliminate it. Public Health England estimates that one dose of vaccine is 55 to 70% effective, rising to 65 to 90% effective once double vaccinated. While this is clearly better than if you’re unvaccinated, the health impact on people who are already living with a long term health condition will likely be considerably greater, both short term and the long term. If healthy people are developing long covid, what will the impact be on someone who already has an energy-limiting condition?

The disproportional impact of Covid on disabled people has been evident throughout the pandemic. For example, people with learning disabilities with Covid-19 are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital, and eight times more likely to die, when compared to the general population. There is irrefutable evidence that Covid is more likely to kill disabled people, and yet, scant efforts are being made to protect us. Instead, the desire to go for a drink or clubbing has been prioritised over the health, and lives, of the millions of disabled people.

To call 19th July ‘Freedom Day’ further excludes and erases those of us who have been forgotten by this government. It reiterates that we don’t matter, that we are considered less than others and unworthy of the same quality of life and health. It is a move back to a segregated society where disabled people are kept behind closed doors.

 We are most certainly not all in this together.

 Helen Jones is a writer and activist based in York.

Image: (CC) http://www.watchdogpfron.pl/ Source: https://neweasterneurope.eu/2021/06/22/job-market-for-people-with-disabilities-in-poland/

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