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Statement of Concern – COVID-19:
Human rights, disability and ethical decision-making

Internationally recognised Australian experts in the areas of human rights, bioethics and disability, have today released a Statement of Concern to emphasise key human rights principles and standards that need to underpin ethical decision-making in the context of disability and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are much greater risks from the COVID-19 pandemic for people with disability, in particular, for older people with disability, First Peoples with disability, people with intellectual or psychosocial disability, those with chronic health conditions, co-morbidities, dependence on ventilators and compromised immunity. 

Ms Rosemary Kayess, Vice-Chair, United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stated, “We welcome the development of the Management and Operational Plan for People with Disability as part of the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for COVID-19.  However, we are concerned that any increasing demand on critical health treatment and intensive medical care will require decisions to be made about life-saving treatment that could seriously undermine the rights of people with disability.” 

Professor of Bioethics, Jackie Leach Scully further outlined, “We are aware of international experience during this pandemic that shows that health directives and medical decision-making protocols demonstrate an underlying, pervasive and often unquestioned devaluing of people with disability.  We are concerned, along with all people with disability, about similar ableist practices and protocols being replicated in Australia.”  

Ms Robin Banks, former Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner continued, “We believe it is critical that nationally consistent human rights principles and standards underpin any ethical decision-making frameworks to ensure the protection of the rights of people with disability.” 

Signatories propose the following human rights principles for ethical decision-making:

  1. Health care should not be denied or limited to people with disability on the basis of impairment.
  2. People with disability should have access to health care, including emergency and critical health care, on the basis of equality with others and based on objective and non-discriminatory clinical criteria.
  3. Health care should not be denied or limited because a person with disability requires reasonable accommodation or adjustment.
  4. Health care should be provided on the basis of free and informed consent of the person with disability.
  5. Health care should not be denied or limited based on quality of life judgements about the person with disability.
  6. Ethical decision-making frameworks should be designed with close consultation and active involvement of people with disability and their representative organisations.

The signatories provide this Statement of Concern acknowledging the significant challenges faced by the National Cabinet, the State and Territory health care systems, and medical and health care professionals across Australia and thank them for their efforts.


Robin Banks
Human Rights Lawyer and former Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Tasmania

Andrew Byrnes
Professor of Law, Faculty of Law, University of NSW 
Research Associate, Australian Human Rights Institute, University of NSW

Kevin Cocks AM
Former Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner

Megan Davis
Expert Member, United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UN Human Rights Council 
Professor of Law, UNSW Law

Graeme Innes AM
Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Rosemary Kayess 
Vice-Chair, United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Senior Research Fellow, Social Policy Research Centre, University of NSW
2019 Australian Human Rights Medallist  

Ron McCallum AO
Emeritus Professor and former Dean of Law, University of Sydney
Former Chair, United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Senior Australian of the Year 2011

Jackie Leach Scully FAcSS, FRSA
Professor of Bioethics    
Director, Disability Innovation Institute, University of NSW

Read the Statement of Concern below:

This Statement of Concern was commissioned by:

  • Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO)
  • People With Disability Australia (PWDA)
  • Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA)
  • National Ethnic Disability Alliance (NEDA)
  • First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN)
  • ACT Council of Social Service Inc. (ACTCOSS).
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