The “shadow of eugenics” is hanging over the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, disabled trade unionists have been told at their annual conference.
Speaker after speaker at the annual TUC disabled workers’ conference spoke of how government decisions – and the actions of doctors – had exposed entrenched discrimination and abuse of disabled people’s rights.
Many of those who spoke yesterday (Wednesday), on the first day of the two-day conference, highlighted how official figures showed disabled people had accounted for six in 10 COVID-related deaths.
Natasha Hirst (pictured, left), from the National Union of Journalists, said the figure in Wales was even higher, at 68 per cent of COVID-related deaths in the early months of the pandemic.
Hirst told the online conference: “Our exclusion is driven by political and social attitudes. We are not valued.”
She said the UK government had been warned by the UN’s disability committee in 2017 that its violations of disabled people’s human rights had caused a “human catastrophe”, but it had failed to act.
She said: “The UK government was warned, they were given solutions, but they dismissed them all. This is the consequence.
“When governments deprioritise us, so do employers and service-providers, and everybody else.
“We have experienced how easily in a crisis our human rights are discarded… they are not our rights if they are snatched away when we need them most.”
Lucy Burke, from the University and College Union (UCU), said it was clear that the lives of disabled people were being lost because of “deeply entrenched discrimination”.
She said: “Nothing tells us more about the profound systemic ableism that blights people’s lives and life chances than the fact that doctors have to be reminded not to deny critical care to disabled people simply because they are disabled.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the human rights abuses experienced by disabled people in this country.
“The right to life and to adequate healthcare are fundamental rights that we are seeing persistently violated.
“The pandemic has also enabled non-disabled people to openly talk about the rationing of critical care and about lives that are and apparently are not worth saving or living.”
Dave Allan (pictured, centre), the disabled members representative on the TUC’s general council, and co-chair of its disabled workers’ committee, said: “Disabled people have been forced to pay the price for government failings, often with our lives.
“The government were looking into herd immunity [at the start of the pandemic], while other governments were locking down their borders.”
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady (pictured, right), was another who referred to the suggestion that, early in the pandemic, the government had discussed a possible “herd immunity” strategy that would allow the virus to sweep across the country almost unhindered, in a bid to protect the economy.
She said the government had been slow and “resistant” to ordering a lockdown in the early days of the crisis.
She told the conference: “There was all that talk about herd immunity, survival of the fittest is what that says to me, and I think again we have to be honest, in this conference of all conferences, that the shadow of eugenics hangs over the whole debate, that some lives are cheaper than others.”
She pointed to the “do not resuscitate” (DNR) orders placed on the files of people with learning difficulties.
She said: “If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what does.
“But it is ugly, it is obscene, and I think it needs calling out, because never again should we be in this position where people’s lives are put on the line because of their disability.”
Elane Heffernan, from UCU, told the conference that the actions of the government and doctors had highlighted and increased the discrimination faced by disabled people.
She said: “Whether it was the disdain for the lives of working-class people that we see in the herd immunity or the failure to protect us from the eugenics of the medical model that we see in the DNR notices… for disabled workers, the pandemic has deepened the prejudice and inequality that we face at work every day.”
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