(Re)Approaching Accessibility: COVID-19 long haulers won’t teach us anything new about disability

Waiting for more people to become disabled won’t improve accessibility, centring disability justice will

Illustration of the wheelchair disability symbol, made up of many different people.
Privatization won’t fix our underfunded healthcare system. ILLUSTRATION: Nazmus Sakib / The Peak

By: C Icart, Staff Writer

Long COVID could change the way we think about disability in Canada, but it probably won’t. It’s been over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although vaccines were created and administered, there’s still so much we don’t know about the disease — like the full effects of long COVID.

There isn’t currently a uniform definition of long COVID, but some have called it a “mass disabling event.” Long COVID is one of the many names referring to post-COVID conditions, which include varying health problems like fever and brain fog, which can last years. On top of long COVID disabling some individuals, others have pre-existing disabilities that increase their risk of exposure and/or infection. Because of this, long COVID poses an exceptional risk to the disabled community.

As we navigate this pandemic, more research is underway surrounding long COVID. Some American studies estimate long COVID affects 10–50% of COVID-19 survivors. Another study found that reinfection increases the risk of developing long COVID. This is especially concerning with the lifting of COVID-19 mandates and our “return to normal.” It means millions of people are joining the growing category of those living with chronic illnesses. This has many adverse effects on people’s lives. For example, Statistics Canada reported that 40% of Canada’s low income population is disabled.

A push for healthcare privatization is happening in Canada, which is concerning. Four premiers got together at a healthcare summit and discussed the possibility of delivering more services through the private sector. Contrary to their claims, privatizing healthcare will not “take pressure off the public system.” It will increase the number of people avoiding necessary health care because they can’t afford it. How is this an improvement on our system? In fact, even those wealthy enough to afford the extra care wouldn’t necessarily be better off. They’d be more likely to receive unwarranted procedures. COVID-19 simply put a spotlight on the already existing inadequacies of our healthcare system, as we weren’t ready for this pandemic. Canada has an accessibility problem, and it’s only getting worse.

So what can we do? There are claims that COVID-19 long haulers are changing medical activism. However, disability justice activists have been speaking up and doing the work for a long time. Canada’s lack of accessibility is not because of a lack of activism, it’s due to a lack of action from our governments. Will this change in the wake of COVID-19? Has it changed in the wake of other “mass disabling events” like the HIV/AIDS crisis? Will our government continue to treat certain people like they’re disposable?

Now, we see less people wearing masks and social distancing, but the pandemic isn’t over. We need to stop implying that increased numbers of people with disabilities will inevitably lead to better healthcare access. Canadians shouldn’t wait until they get long COVID or are personally affected by healthcare privatization to advocate for better services. We need healthcare and social services that center disability justice.

COVID-19 long haulers are joining the disability justice movement, but we’ve always needed these resources. If history repeats itself, the general public will look the other way, so real change will count on effort from everyone. It’s time to pressure our provincial governments to step away from the privatization of healthcare, and invest in improving access to public healthcare.