As the number of recorded coronavirus cases in the UK approaches 2 million, we are beginning to understand the societal impact of “long covid”. This week, a study from the ONS found 20% of those infected with COVID-19 were symptomatic after 5 weeks. Nearly 10% had symptoms three months after infection. Those with severe after-effects report respiratory problems, chronic fatigue and cognitive impairments. It’s reasonable to assume that many thousands of people in the UK will be affected by chronic or reoccurring symptoms on a permanent basis.
This has sparked discussion about how existing legal protections for disabled workers may apply to those with long covid. An instructive case is the experience of workers with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. ME/CFS is an acquired condition that substantially impairs the ability to engage in activity. People living with ME/CFS have long faced stigma, discrimination and scepticism. A lack of clarity on the condition’s origins and treatments has allowed detractors (including many medical professionals) to label CFS as psychosomatic, or even invented. While such attitudes are refuted by majority medical opinion, people with ME/CFS often have to fight for recognition from GPs, employers and the state.
Online support groups created by those affected by long covid reflect similar experiences. It is common to find accounts of continuing physical and mental exhaustion which significantly impact people’s ability to live and work. Many report being misdiagnosed with anxiety or turned away from medical help due to a lack of treatment options. Many talk of losing their job or being furloughed. Because we currently lack medical and legal definitions of long covid, those with chronic symptoms are currently unable to access support and protection under existing disability legislation.
The pandemic has reinforced the structural inequalities disabled workers face. The employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers continues to increase. 7 out of 10 of disabled people in employment report loss of earnings, furlough or redundancy as a result of COVID. Many have been denied requests to work from home. The negative economic outlook means that accommodations disabled workers are legally guaranteed will continue to face pressure. A lack of government response to these issues has perpetuated the marginalisation of disabled people in employment. The attention surrounding long covid presents an opportunity to critically examine this situation.