Experiences of people with disability during COVID-19 pandemic
The ongoing social and economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have profound effects on billions of people around the world. Since the first COVID-19 case in Australia on 25 January 2020 (Hunt 2020), Australians experienced several waves of the pandemic, international and state and territory border closures, hotel quarantines, lockdowns and restrictions on social gatherings, closures of non-essential services, physical distancing and face mask requirements. At 30 September 2021, there were more than 102,000 cases of COVID-19 in Australia and 1,278 people had lost their lives due to the virus (Department of Health 2021).
Many people with disability are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing more severe health impacts. In addition to the direct health impacts of the illness, various restrictions and public health measures associated with the pandemic are likely to cause added stress for people with disability due to loss of social contacts, problems with employment and finances, disruptions to formal and informal supports, and distress associated with rapidly evolving situations and changing public health directions.
This section looks at various impacts of COVID-19 on people with disability, and how these compared with people without disability. The section explores topics such as health, social support, education and training, employment, and household finances.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, this report focuses on the period of early 2020 to mid-2021 (September 2021 for administrative data), based on data availability. The primary data source for this section is the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, supplemented by available administrative data and data from surveys developed in 2020 to specifically assess people’s experiences during the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted existing data gaps in collection of information about people with disability (both within and outside the scope of the National Disability Insurance Scheme), including on the infection rates, vaccination status, deaths and hospitalisations. This is largely because of long standing data gaps in the collection of disability status in existing data collections and a lack of underpinning data integration infrastructure that would enable this information to quickly be linked and reported on. For more details, and for current developments in enhancing available information, see Key data gaps.
Throughout this report, comparisons of various indicators and experiences for people with disability and those without disability drawn from survey data are made having regard to statistical significance where possible. Statistical significance does not necessarily mean that the observed difference is large or important; rather, it indicates whether the observed difference is likely to be due to chance. Therefore, depending on the size of the sample for which the information was collected, differences which may be commonly regarded as large (for example, 5 percentage points or more) may not be statistically significant, and the corresponding proportions may therefore be described in this report as ‘similar’. This section also adopts the Australian Bureau of Statistics convention of marking certain proportions with an asterisk (*) to indicate that the margin of error for the estimated proportion is greater than 10 percentage points. The margin of error used in this report was calculated with the level of confidence of 95%, and means that the ‘true’ percentage for the entire population would be within the margin of error around a reported percentage 95% of the time.
Some surveys quoted in this section of the report were developed and conducted in the early stages of the pandemic to help fill various information gaps. These surveys may have been run with comparatively few respondents, using self-selection sampling (where respondents are not randomly chosen to participate in the survey but self-nominate to participate instead). Self-selection sampling may result in the sample not being representative of the population, or attracting people with particular characteristics or experiences. This section provides as much information as possible about the sample size and characteristics of each of its data sources.
The data used in this section are largely from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey. This survey was designed to provide a quick snapshot of the changing social and economic situation for Australian households with particular focus on how they were faring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey was initially conducted between April 2020 and June 2021. From 1 April to 10 July 2020, the survey was conducted fortnightly with the same panel of respondents. From August 2020, the survey was conducted monthly with a new panel. Panel members have rotated, with new members added in November 2020 and March 2021. At the time of writing, the June 2021 survey was the last in the series; the survey was subsequently reinstated for 3 months from February to April 2022.
Each cycle of the survey collected information on different topics. Some topics have been repeated in both fortnightly and monthly surveys. The topics included:
- self-assessed physical and mental health
- emotional and mental wellbeing
- use of health services (including telehealth)
- job situation (including access to leave, job search and working from home arrangements)
- training and development of skills
- household finances (including income, saving, spending and financial stress)
- receipt of government assistance payments and supports
- care and assistance provided to vulnerable people inside and outside of household
- caring for children and child care and schooling arrangements during COVID-19
- social contacts and participation in activities
- personal and household stressors
- lifestyle changes
- COVID-19 vaccination attitudes and experiences
- behaviours around COVID-19 testing
- precautions taken due to COVID-19
- life after COVID-19.
Disability status was captured in the survey using a subset of questions from the ABS Short Disability Module. While this module provides useful information about the characteristics of people with disability relative to those without, it is not recommended for use in measuring disability prevalence.
In the survey, a person is considered to have disability if they have one or more conditions (including long-term health conditions) which have lasted, or are likely to last, for at least 6 months and restrict everyday activities.
The survey collected data from people aged 18 and over in private dwellings across Australia (excluding very remote areas). It did not include people living in institutional settings, such as aged care facilities.
Due to constant and rapid changes in the COVID-19 situation, the numbers reported in this section should be viewed in the context of the situation at the time of data collection. Therefore, throughout this section, references are made to the month in which the data were collected. A brief timeline of COVID-19 in Australia between January 2020 and October 2021 is provided below for reference.
New daily COVID-19 cases in Australia between January 2020 and October 2021
Source: COVID-19 in Australia
- first case of COVID-19 in Australia reported on 25 January 2020
- new cases among international arrivals only
- public health measures comprised blocking international arrivals from some countries.
March–April 2020 – first wave
- first cases of community transmission of the virus (2 March); the number of daily new cases grew sharply from the beginning of March, reached a peak of 464 on 28 March, and then started falling to fewer than 20 cases a day by the end of April
- Australian borders closed to all non-residents on 20 March; from 27 March, returning residents were required to spend 2 weeks in supervised quarantine hotels
- introduction of border control measures for some states and territories
- introduction of physical distancing rules (21 March), and restrictions on non-essential gatherings and services (such as pubs, gyms and cinemas) (22 March)
- announcement of first (12 March) and second (22 March) economic stimulus packages; a safety net package for mental health, telehealth and domestic violence services, and emergency food relief (29 March); JobKeeper payment (30 March) and free child care for working parents (2 April).
May–June 2020 – gradual easing of restrictions
- continuing international border closures; continuing state and territory border control measures for some jurisdictions; slight easing of restrictions in some states and territories (from 1–12 May)
- The National Cabinet’s three-stage plan to begin easing restrictions (8 May)
- Stage 1: allowing gatherings of up to 10 people, up to 5 visitors in the family home, and some local and regional travel
- Stage 2: expansion of stage 1, with gatherings of up to 20 people, and more businesses reopening, including gyms, beauty services and entertainment venues
- Stage 3: the ‘new normal’ – transition to COVID-safe ways of living and working, with gatherings of up to 100 people permitted
- average daily case numbers around 15 throughout May, fewer than 10 in the first half of June
- all jurisdictions in stage 2 and some in stage 3 during June.
July–October 2020 – second wave
- restrictions reinstated in regions of Victoria from 1 July due to new COVID-19 clusters
- second wave largely localised to Melbourne and much more widespread and deadlier than the first (at its peak, Victoria had more than 7,000 active cases).
- the wave ended with zero new cases being recorded on 26 October 2020.
November 2020–June 2021
- cluster outbreaks in late 2020 and mid-2021, with several brief snap lockdowns in certain states to contain the spread.
July–October 2021 – third wave
- an outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant during June 2021 in New South Wales caused lockdowns for almost half of Australia's population and most major cities from early July 2021
- the outbreak continued to worsen to new record daily cases into August. In late August to mid-September 2021 Victoria had its first 9 deaths since late October 2020.
Department of Health (2021) Coronavirus (COVID-19) case numbers and statistics, Department of Health, Australian Government, accessed 1 October 2021.
Hunt G (Minister for Health and Aged Care, The Hon Greg Hunt MP) (25 January 2020) First confirmed case of novel coronavirus in Australia [media release], Minister Hunt’s media, Department of Health, Australian Government, accessed 10 May 2022.