The news was not completely surprising, but reinforced the worst fears of many organisations, family carers and health practitioners helping people with learning disabilities – that this invisible killer has caused a massively disproportionate toll on one of the most disadvantaged segments of the population.
According to a study released by Public Health England earlier in November on the basis of the early months of the pandemic, people with learning disabilities are more than six times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the general population.
In addition, young people with intellectual disabilities aged 18-34 are astounding thirty times more likely to die from Covid-19 than their neurotypical peers.
Yet in this helter-skelter year when we seem to have been almost insured into heart-breaking news, the conversation seems to have moved on.
Announcement to permit families in the U.K. To meet for a few days over the holiday season and the new year, promising an incoming U.S. administration eager to tackle the pandemic through research and rationalism, rather than using it as a political football, everyone gave hope.
That aside, the single biggest element in the last month pointing to some light at the end of the tunnel must be the announcement of promising results from not one but three coronavirus vaccine trials.
The vaccines Covid-19 developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna and the third produced by the partnership between the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca both point to an efficacy rate of more than 90% for the prevention of Covid-19.
Talks are now taking place on the roll-out of mass vaccination services in the spring, subject to the approval of the authorities, but among the good news, young people with learning disabilities seem to have received another hammer blow.
Individuals with learning disorders to be de-prioritized in the roll-out of Covid vaccine
According to interim advice from the United Kingdom Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), young adults with learning disabilities are only sixth on the priority list to receive coronavirus vaccine when one is accessible.
While it can be acknowledged at some level that this is nevertheless a vulnerable category of the population ranked behind older adults in nursing homes and those over the age of 80, it is surprising that adults with learning disabilities have still been classified as a lower priority than healthy adults over the age of 65.
This would give rise to a preposterous scenario in which a healthy, gloomy 65-year-old, who is also completely capable of observing and recognizing social distance guidelines, is given priority over a highly mentally disabled adult with co-morbidities.
The anger felt by family members and organizations supporting individuals with learning disabilities is overwhelming, and Simone Aspis, Director of Shifting Perspectives, an organization that supports social justice for people with disabilities, has not taken much care in her review of what she thinks is happening.
“People with learning difficulties are at the edge of the queue for vaccination, testing, health care… education support,” Aspis said in a Disability News Service report earlier this month.
Before bringing it further, “Is there not a clear message that there is a social eugenics scheme going on here? ”
Counting human costs
The raw statistics in the Public Health England report are harrowing enough. However, if there is any question as to the overwhelming human cost of getting this wrong – you just need to listen to the words of Bridgette Caner, a carer with over three decades of experience working in a care home for people with learning disabilities in Newbury, Berkshire.
In a heart-wrenching interview with Sky News earlier this month, Caner, barely holding back her tears, spoke candidly about her experiences of seeing the virus tear through the care home, killing a quarter of her tenants.
“We looked after them as one of our own. It was like losing one of our own. Day after day,”Caner
“To listen to someone choking, you know, and clearing their throats, being hot, delirious, crying, you’ve had people crying, saying, just let me die, I don’t want to be here.”
Of course, at the beginning of 2020, no government could have imagined such a bleak and apocalyptic year overshadowed by a deadly virus.
However, for many years, individuals with learning disabilities have also suffered the brunt of swinging cuts in social care budgets and the inability of successive governments to incorporate social care and healthcare services effectively.
Such long-term stresses, including oil tankers, would prove difficult to turn around quickly and have only been intensified by the pandemic.
In a year in which governments have been pressured to be a foot fleet and highly reactive, while ensuring their populations that they are “following science,” it can only be hoped that there will be space to rethink these perplexing vaccination plans and thereby protect vulnerable lives.