What’s the underlying reason for mentioning underlying health conditions in COVID reporting?

Article published 22 September 2021

What’s the underlying reason for mentioning underlying health conditions in COVID reporting?

It may be true that older age and certain existing health conditions may worsen the impacts of COVID-19 but the use of ‘underlying health conditions’ in COVID-19 reporting has lately been criticised. There have been several claims that the federal Government is using the largely encompassing label of underlying health conditions to avoid accountability for a slow vaccination roll out and additional perceived failures to contain the COVID-19 virus.

One in two Australians has a chronic health condition and 20 per cent of Australians are aged over sixty, meaning that those who die of COVID-19 but have ‘underlying health conditions’ are not a small ‘other’ but make up a large proportion of the population.

In a media release dated 8 September, People with Disability Australia (PWDA) labelled the use of underlying health conditions in COVID-19 reporting as “victim-blaming”. PWDA also reinforced the fact that a disability or chronic health condition is not a death sentence.

The Grattan Institute’s Professor Stephen Duckett said on Twitter that around 10 million Australians are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Duckett told the SBS the disclosure of a person’s underlying health condition status “…is more or less dismissing the importance of that death and excusing the death because they had an underlying condition”.  Duckett went on to say it is important to remember that regardless of the health status or age of a person who has died from COVID-19, they expected to live longer than they did.

Further adding to the argument that the use of underlying health conditions in COVID-19 reporting is a tactic used by government to avoid accountability is the low vaccination rate of NDIS participants. As of 13 September, only 58.1 per cent of eligible people on the NDIS had received one dose, only 39.3 per cent had received two doses.

Instead of using underlying health conditions to excuse COVID-19 deaths, Australian governments should do more to prioritise the vaccination of people with disability and health conditions. Even though this cohort of people were amongst the first to be eligible for vaccines, the above vaccination rates show not enough effort has been directed to ensuring the most vulnerable Australians are vaccinated.

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