‘Blatant discrimination’: Shocking response to woman in wheelchair at Covid testing site

·4-min read

Several human rights violations have been detailed in a report, including the "blatant discrimination" a woman in a wheelchair received while waiting to get a Covid-19 test.

The report from Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass was released on Wednesday, explaining over 3000 complaints were received in the past year amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

“All too often human rights are poorly understood both by the public agencies who are obliged to consider them and by the public they are intended to protect,” Ms Glass said.

“The human rights failures we see are not deliberate – those in authority simply fail to properly consider or balance some of the fundamental principles that underpin our basic freedoms."

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass revealed thousands of human rights breaches were reported amid the pandemic. Source: AAP
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass revealed thousands of human rights breaches were reported amid the pandemic. Source: AAP

Woman's needs disregarded at testing site

Over the course of the pandemic, the Ombudsman intervened to ensure human rights were being protected.

One of those instances was in regard to Tereza, who uses a wheelchair and lined up at a drive-thru testing site in January this year.

According to the Ombudsman, Tereza was waiting nearly four hours for a test on what was described as a "hot day" and she asked staff if she was able to use the toilet.

However, the toilets at the testing site were not wheelchair accessible.

Tereza asked staff if she would be able to leave the line and rejoin her spot when she returned, however, she was told if she left, she would need to join the end of the line.

She was unable to get a Covid test and left the queue. 

The incident was reported to the Ombudsman by a bystander, who was appalled by the way Tereza was treated.

A woman was unable to use the toilet at a Covid test site, as the toilets were not wheelchair accessible. Source: AAP, file photo
A woman was unable to use the toilet at a Covid test site, as the toilets were not wheelchair accessible. Source: AAP, file photo

"It was blatant discrimination … they made no consideration of her needs," the bystander said, according to the Ombudsman.

The Department of Health was contacted by the Ombudsman regarding Tereza's case

"In response to those enquiries, the Department explained that in-home testing can be available for people with disabilities or chronic illness, and that testing sites should still make ‘reasonable adjustments’," the Ombudsman said.

"In Tereza’s case, the Department said staff at the site should either have hired a disability accessible toilet, offered to test Tereza ahead of others or helped her get to an accessible toilet without losing her spot in the queue.

"As a result of our enquiry, the Department contacted all COVID-19 testing sites and reminded them of their obligations."

Woman denied use of airport toilet

Tereza's case was not the only instance where a person's needs were not considered.

Earlier this year, a NSW woman was forced to relieve herself on a moving bus en route to hotel quarantine.

The woman and her child had been detained at Melbourne airport for five hours, while waiting to be assigned a hotel to be taken for quarantine.

On the way to the bus, the woman needed to use the toilet, however, she was told to wait until she got to the hotel.

According to the report, she found an empty bottle and used it to relieve herself while the bus was moving.

"I have never been so humiliated," she told the Ombudsman.

"Even during a global pandemic, human rights cannot be ignored," Ms Glass noted.

“Had dignity been considered when a woman needed the toilet while awaiting transit to hotel quarantine, she would not have had to urinate in a plastic water bottle on a moving bus.”

A woman was not denied access to a toilet after being detained for hours at Melbourne airport. Source: AAP, file
A woman was not denied access to a toilet after being detained for hours at Melbourne airport. Source: AAP, file

Other examples given include a mother and her children not being able to sleep in their public housing property after asbestos removalists did not finish the job, leaving behind damage and electrical wires exposed.

A Victorian mother was told she was no longer entitled to an electricity discount, while using three life support machines to keep her daughter alive.

The discount was revoked because they were not on the Department's approval list, but without the discount, she could not afford to keep the machines running.

"Human rights are not absolute. This has been starkly borne out by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of the rights and freedoms taken for granted all our lives have been, and continue to be, suddenly curtailed," the foreword of the report says.

"Lockdowns, border closures and compulsory mask-wearing restrict our freedoms of movement and expression, but these rights must be balanced against our own – and others’ – health and wellbeing and right to life.

"This can be a difficult balancing act, including for my office. We do not investigate all complaints alleging human rights breaches, but we did investigate the unique circumstances of the public housing lockdown."

With AAP

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