Coronavirus has made it even easier to forget about disabled people

Understanding that structural inequality means some will be hurt more than others is vital if we hope to slow this pandemic

As the weeks go on, it is becoming clear coronavirus is not an equal opportunity pandemic. Guardian analysis last week found ethnic minorities in England are dying in disproportionately high numbers compared with white people. And now research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on disabled people’s lives.

More disabled adults said they were “very worried” about the effects of coronavirus on their lives than non-disabled adults (45.1% compared with 30.2%). Nearly two-thirds of disabled people said coronavirus-related concerns were affecting their wellbeing, from loneliness and problems at work, to worsening mental health.

This is all too predictable when you consider disabled people are more likely to be in low income and insecure work, isolated, and at higher risk from the virus itself (even more so if you’re disabled and BAME).

When I first argued that coronavirus would impact disabled and marginalised people hardest, some readers responded by pointing out a virus doesn’t check a victim’s bank balance before striking. But understanding that structural inequality means a pandemic will hurt some more than others is crucial if we hope to slow the impact of the virus.

Take the social security system. Universal credit has been increased by £20 since the lockdown to pay for the extra costs of the pandemic, but millions of disabled people on older out-of-work benefits such as the employment and support allowance (ESA) will not receive the extra financial support. Charities call it “discriminatory” and it’s hard to disagree. A survey by the Disability Consortium found nine out of 10 disabled people are struggling with additional food costs, with others unable to pay for medicine collections or their rising utility bills as they shield at home.

These are people who, by definition of being on ESA, are some of the most severely disabled or ill people in society and yet are being forgotten.

It’s no coincidence that this follows a decade of austerity that has made disabled people poorer and more isolated. The man on crutches who lost his Motability car after having his disability benefits removed now has no safe way to nip to the shops for supplies during lockdown.

Or consider access to healthcare. I recently reported concerns that disabled people would not be deemed a priority for treatment if they caught coronavirus, but getting help for existing health conditions in a pandemic can be just as difficult.

With the NHS working tirelessly to cope with the crisis, many disabled people have had appointments postponed or cancelled. A study by the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) shows almost half of disabled people are concerned about access to medicine. Two in five are “extremely concerned” about making medical appointments if they have to self-isolate for more than three months.

A government campaign has been launched to encourage people with acute non-Covid conditions such as heart attacks to seek help amid concerns some are avoiding hospitals, but this needs to include those with chronic illness too. Lockdown is a perfect storm for patients with long-term health conditions, where those who are at high risk of coronavirus are simultaneously more likely to be afraid of catching the virus in a hospital and more in need of seeing their doctors.

Or consider mental health. Disabled people are more used to dealing with restrictions on their social lives than most but this doesn’t make lockdown any easier. Indeed, it is considerably harder. One in 10 adults with a disability reported often or always feeling lonely in the last seven days, according to the ONS, compared with less than one in 20 non-disabled adults. Unlike the general population, many disabled people aren’t able to pop out for our hour of fresh air and exercise, while others can’t even access Facebook or Zoom; in a survey by Glasgow Disability Alliance only just over a third of disabled people reported having home broadband during the pandemic.

As talk of a prolonged lockdown is floated, there has been concern in recent days over how older people would cope with long-term isolation but noticeably near silence on younger people with disabilities stuck at home. This is partly a policy issue but it is largely about attitudes. The idea that poverty, isolation or even early death is somehow natural for disabled people is still worryingly prevalent. “Underlying health conditions” increasingly feels like a euphemism for those society has quietly given up on. Just look at how we still don’t know how many disabled people have died in care homes; their deaths are being written out of the stories we are using to make sense of this crisis.

Amid great uncertainty, what is clear is that it will be a long while yet before we return to any sense of normalcy. This is especially true for marginalised groups. Over the coming weeks, shut behind closed doors in more ways than one, disabled people will be all too easy to forget. The only thing more dangerous than inequality is when that inequality is invisible.

• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

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Frances Ryan

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