An urgent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission has found that Omicron has caused stress, confusion and put the wellbeing of disabled people at risk.

This comes after Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero launched an inquiry in March, which looked into the support of disabled people during the Omicron outbreak. 

Re: previously spoke to young New Zealanders with disabilities - one person said "disabled people, now more than ever, feel like we are being thrown to the wolves". 

In a media release from the Human Rights Commission, Tesoriero says "the aspirations and needs of disabled people and their whānau do not appear to have been given prominence in government policy and decision making throughout the pandemic".

"Some groups reported reduced levels of trust and engagement for disabled people and their whānau during the Omicron phase.”  

Most experiences were stressful

The inquiry received information from 30 organisations and networks, which included the current experiences of disabled people and their whānau. 

Tesoriero acknowledged that the inquiry was told about some good experiences from submissions. 

People had received great support from Māori and Pacific organisations, and there was good support and information disabled people provided to each other.

But most experiences were stressful, Tesoriero says. 

Submissions to the inquiry included experiences from people who shared how frustrating it was to try to be heard during the earlier stages of the Covid-19 response. 

Some organisations talked of being involved in disability advisory groups, but this did not guarantee that the views and concerns of disabled people and their whānau were listened to or acted upon, the media release said.

Submissions also emphasised the worry and stress that came with the shift from alert levels to the introduction of the Covid-19 Protection Framework.  

The inquiry found that many of the issues disabled people identified in the first two years of the Covid-19 response have worsened - while at the same time, Covid-19 restrictions and the protections they offered disabled people and their whānau and communities, have lessened. 

Tesoriero says the purpose of this inquiry is not to comment on the Government’s move away from the elimination strategy, but to highlight the crucial importance of putting appropriate measures in place to address those increased risks for disabled people, tāngata whaikaha Māori and their whānau. 

“Most importantly, their voices must be central to the ongoing response to Covid-19.” 

Submissions also called for a stronger commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi by government agencies, in a way that creates conditions for tāngata whaikaha Māori and their whānau to express mana motuhake (independence) and to ensure that government services and funding meet their aspirations and needs.  

Tesoriero says the government has responded positively and with urgency to some of the issues raised during the inquiry.   

The main things disabled people told the inquiry

- Problem with communication: It was hard for people to find information and it changed quickly. The information was in lots of different places and there was heavy reliance on digital information. Phone lines did not always have the option for people to text. 

- Staying safe during the pandemic: It was hard for people to get access to or afford the things that help keep people safe, like masks or finding accessible vaccination sites. 

- Support to isolate safely: Many disabled people could not afford to stock up on food or medication in advance, and online deliveries did not work well for everyone. Housing situations may not be suitable for isolating or to arrange alternative support if usual support workers were unwell.   

- Disrupted disability support services: People told the inquiry they have had changes and disruptions to support. People were very worried about how they would get support if their usual workers got sick. It seemed there had not been good planning for this and messages from the government said people needed to work it out for themselves which meant they felt left on their own. 

- Unavailable health services: People had problems connecting with their usual health services like the GP and were worried whether they would have what they needed to keep safe if they had to be in hospital. 

- Lack of support in education settings: People did not always get the right support from schools when they wanted to keep learning from home to stay safe when schools opened again  

Inquiry recommendations to the government

Immediately work in partnership with disabled people in all their planning to: 

  • improve the information about Covid-19 and Omicron so it is easier to find it and use   
  • make sure there are easier ways to get what people need like masks, rapid antigen tests, a support worker if the usual worker is sick and more help if someone has to isolate at home if they are sick 
  • set up a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week service that people can contact to get their support if their usual support person is not able to come to work  
  • giving people more flexible options including how to get the right support for learning if they are staying away from school

Preparing for the continued responses to Covid-19:  

  • Thinking ahead, the government must plan much better to make sure people will keep getting their support when workers might get sick with Covid-19 or for future emergencies 
  • Give more funding to Māori and Pacific organisations who people are finding very helpful in supporting them

In the medium-term: 

  • Making sure there is much better information collected about tāngata whaikaha Māori and disabled people and experiences of COVID-19/Omicron so that we can see all the time what is happening and if anything needs to be done differently. 
  • Making sure disabled people are part of the decision making when it comes to Covid-19 at all levels of government 
  • Giving better support to whānau and families and other people who care about and support tāngata whaikaha Māori and disabled people

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