Masking Inequality? Time to take a rights-based approach to South Australia’s Pandemic Response

South Aussies might just be the some of the luckiest humans on the planet. We have no community transmission of COVID-19, the sun is shining, our hospitals are functioning, our kids are at school and we can have a beer at the pub.

For this good fortune we owe a debt of gratitude to our political leaders, our health experts, our police and the countless other front-line workers that care for us, clean for us, drive for us and stock our shelves.

With this good fortune comes responsibility – not just to follow the rules when it comes to COVID-19 safety measures, but also to ask how the rules are being made, how the rules are being applied, and whether the good fortune most of us experience is shared equally in the community.


Because whilst most of us feel very lucky, some of us are really struggling. Struggling to put food on the table, struggling to stay safe from violence in our homes, struggling to find secure housing, struggling to access the services we need to lead a dignified and healthy life.


South Australians with chronic physical or mental health care needs and those with disabilities are carrying a particularly heavy burden - forced to navigate changes to services and care and experiencing delays and sometimes even discrimination and abuse when interacting with stretched health care and disability support services. Earlier this week The Advertiser reported that there have been 25 incidents in state-run disability homes referred to police since 2018, including reports of rape, assault and serious neglect, and we know that there are many more stories of substandard care and treatment from those with disabilities living in the community.


A number of Rights Resource Network SA members have described the cascading challenges associated with navigating the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the acute frustrations, delays and misunderstandings associated with accessing emergency health care during the pandemic. Access to quality social work support for persons with disabilities and their families has also been challenging. These types of experiences are pushing strong, contributing members of our community to the edge. Systems designed to help bring dignity, choice and empowerment to people with disabilities have instead caused humiliation, confusion, frustration and sometimes trauma. Sadly this is nothing new as the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability shows.


Older people in South Australia are also continuing to wait for urgently needed changes to the way their rights and dignity are respected within the aged care system, with the federal and state parliaments slow to respond to the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. While positive moves are underway by the Office for Aging Well and South Australia’s Plan for Aging Well 2020-2025, other important safeguards to protect against human rights abuses in residential aged care facilities remain outstanding. Staffing shortages and COVID-19 measures are compounded experiences of isolation and disempowerment for many in residential aged care.


There is also a need to keep asking for more information about policing of compliance with COVID-19 directives and directions, with early data obtained by the Chair of the South Australian Parliament’s COVID-19 Committee suggesting that certain lower socio-economic suburbs were highly represented when it came to the issuing of fines for non-compliance.


The use of facial recognition technology to support at-home quarantine is another example of a policy development that sounds sensible but needs careful scrutiny to ensure it does not give rise to privacy concerns or unintended pressures on vulnerable groups.


If we care about making sure South Australia’s good fortune is shared equally, we must continue to ask questions of our political leaders, lawmakers and service providers. We must continue to draw attention to the unseen or unintended consequences that flow from emergency law-making and the implementation of restrictive measures in circumstances where individuals and families are already shouldering complex and heavy burdens. We must look for ways to listen to and raise the voices of those whose lives are most significantly impacted by our successful pandemic response. As the Human Rights Law Centre has recently explained, commenting on the emergency management laws in Victoria:

Extraordinary powers require commensurate oversight and accountability. There should be an independent body or panel, with human rights and public health expertise, to independently review and publicly report on the necessity and proportionality of all public health orders made during a pandemic.

The Rights Resource Network SA will be part of a free online Symposium on the Rights Impacts of Government responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic on 24 November 2021. We welcome your contributions and ideas for topics for discussion and hope that you can join us to share research, listen to those with lived experience and collaborate to effect change. Find out more by emailing sarah.moulds@unisa.edu.au.