Are People with Disability the ‘weakest link’?

chain-2364831_1280This is part of a series looking at the effect of Coronavirus on people with disability.

Once seen some images can’t be forgotten.

Like the crowd in that twangy, country & western auditorium and capital of Tennessee, Nashville, a couple of years ago. A group of furious protesters had gathered to angrily demand an end to the lock-down. As always seems to happen, particularly now (and you can blame this on the effect of the internet, or Trump, or whatever you like) the restraints that smooth over the divisions of our society seemed to have broken down.

One person was enthusiastically carrying a home-made placard which urged the governor to “SACRIFICE THE WEAK!” 

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the bankruptcy of humanity behind such a call and examine the real issue: who are the ‘weak?’

The middle-aged white male carrying the sign obviously had no doubt that he wasn’t about to become the human sacrifice he was calling for, even though he appeared to be slightly overweight and (or so some might think) of less intelligence than average. But let’s try to answer his question. Who is susceptible to the virus and – an issue particularly relevant to this audience – are disabled people particularly at risk?

The only thing we can be sure about, today, is that we don’t know the answer and that’s because we don’t know exactly why some groups of people are more likely to be badly affected by the virus than others.

One of the early suggestions in the UK was the country should go for so-called ‘herd immunity’ – letting the virus rip – on the assumption (mostly unspoken) that it would ‘only’ carry off the elderly (who had less time to live, anyway) and allow the economy to continue (thus preventing other people at risk from other health problems suffering in their turn). Expressed like that it sounds needlessly callous, but think of (for example) those being abused by their partners at home, or others at increased risk of taking their own lives because they felt friendless and alone. Don’t worry though, because even Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s advisor (who’s become a ‘hate figure’ of the progressive left) was reportedly shocked at the idea that any group could be sacrificed. That idea only exists on the fringe of civilised society and it’s the British Prime Minister who’s friendless today.

This isn’t the same thing as happened as the virus originally spread in Italy, however, when doctors found themselves without enough ventilators to go around. The simple shortage of medical equipment in Lombardy, including respirators, meant that in some cases doctors had to make horrible decisions about who would receive treatment and who wouldn’t. Importantly, however, such decisions were apparently always made on a case-by-case basis, instead of classifying and simply writing-off whole groups of people (such as the elderly).

That’s good, because studies have shown that (so far, at any rate) age is the only potential factor marking out if one cohort of people is more likely to die than another. The problem is that age alone is not enough, by itself, to determine who’s susceptible and who is likely to recover after infection.

The Economist has reviewed a particular study investigating exactly this question. Its answer? There’s no link. Yes, sick people are likely to die if they get Covid-19, but so are others that are apparently healthy.

We just don’t know why some people die and others don’t.

What we do know, however, is that disability alone is not a factor that determines who will survive and who will die. Other issues are far more important.




Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: