Disabled women have begun a three-week protest to highlight “appalling” research findings that showed they were almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 during the pandemic as non-disabled women.
They said the research showed that disabled women have been treated as “collateral damage” by the government during the pandemic.
About 20 disabled members of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and allies – including the party’s co-founder, Sandi Toksvig – were outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday (pictured)) to begin their #91Percent campaign.
The party wants to ensure that the official inquiry into the handling of the pandemic crisis examines its impact on disabled people, including the disproportionate loss of life faced by disabled women.
They believe these deaths were avoidable.
Disabled women and allies will be protesting in shifts for a total of 91 hours outside parliament over the next three weeks, with the action split into 90-minute chunks*.
Their campaign will run for three weeks, and it will end with a larger protest on 20 July.
They aim to highlight research, first reported by Disability News Service (DNS), that showed how disabled women with higher support needs in England, aged between 30 and 69, have been 91 per cent more likely to have died from COVID-19 than non-disabled women in the same age group, after allowing for factors such as underlying health conditions, and whether they lived in poverty, in a less affluent part of the country, or in a care home.
Disabled men with higher support needs, and aged between 30 and 69, were 74 per cent more likely to have died than non-disabled men in the same age group.
The research, despite being conducted by the Office for National Statistics and researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), has been almost completely ignored by the mainstream media since its publication.
The LSHTM researchers later told DNS that discrimination by the government as it responded to the pandemic, and within the NHS, could be to blame for the sharply-increased risk of dying from COVID-19.
Freya Papworth, co-chair of WEP’s disability caucus, told DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that she believed the disproportionate deaths were due to discrimination and oppression, including the impact of a decade of government-imposed austerity.
She said: “It’s so much more than just the pandemic.
“A group of people that were just so vulnerable to begin with to attack, to instability, because the safety net has just been completely destroyed over the last decade so there was nothing to kick in when we had an emergency.”
She said the DNS article on the research had led her and her colleagues to decide that “enough is enough”.
She said: “Everyone in the caucus had been saying that disability needs our ‘me too’ moment.
“It’s been just one awful bit of news after another for 18 months and most of us have been stuck at home shielding, being very nervous about going out.”
She said they did not understand why the impact of the pandemic on disabled people had not been “front page news”.
She said: “We are just fed up because we know the statistics, we know the facts, we knew what was going to happen.
“Our community is dying and hurting and has been hurting for so long and it’s not front-page news.”
She added: “We have been shouting and no-one has been listening.”
The campaign has already secured the backing of disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who told DNS: “I think the ONS statistics have shocked all of us, in terms of the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on the lives of disabled people, and the evidence seems to suggest that disabled women suffered consequences even worse.”
Asked to respond to WEP’s call for an inquiry to examine the impact of the pandemic on disabled people, and its concerns about the impact of austerity, a government spokesperson said: “We recognise this pandemic has been incredibly difficult for disabled people and our deepest sympathies go out to those who have lost loved ones.
“Disabled people deserve the best possible care, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have taken action to protect people using emerging evidence to inform our response.
“This includes £3.6 million to help charities offer vital projects to improve disabled people’s physical and mental wellbeing – and through our forthcoming National Disability Strategy we are going to go even further in addressing issues that disabled people say affect them the most.”
But Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, WEP’s deputy leader and a disabled doctor, said the “devastating” study had shown how COVID-19 disproportionately affected disabled women.
She said: “What makes it worse is that this was a preventable crisis, caused by a total lack of planning and awareness of the reality of being disabled.
“The government should hang its head in shame, and be prepared to listen and learn from this failure.
“This is why an independent inquiry will be the first step in acknowledging and addressing the serious inequalities faced by the disabled community.”
Toksvig said more disabled women would die if the government failed to act.
She said: “The government’s failure to keep disabled people safe during this pandemic is unforgivable.
“I will not stand by and watch more disabled women die simply because the government doesn’t appear to believe their lives are worth saving.”
*The party is looking for disabled women and allies to cover 90-minute sections of the Westminster protest, and also for disabled women and allies to conduct 91-minute protests in their own local areas
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