Treated like savage beasts: disabled people and the vaccine

There’s a common misconception in mainstream legal and political philosophy that socially irresponsible or criminal behaviour is fundamentally irrational at heart. John Locke makes this argument in two places early in the Second Treatise of Government (1689), a foundational defining document for modern Social Contract Theory, claiming that:

… reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions … they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure,


… a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security.

From the point of view of disabled people living in Australia today, the problem with this argument—aside from the fact that it relies on a just God manufacturing and then maintaining an equitable distribution of material resources and individual opportunities to function while we live in a constitutionally secular society—is that the government treats us like ‘savage beasts’ already, making it quite impossible to believe we’re equally important to Australian society in the first place.

At first, this might seem like a bold or controversial claim to anybody unfamiliar with the steadily-decreasing state of disability rights in Australia, but especially to anybody living with a disability below the poverty line (that is, over 40 per cent of the total number of Australians in poverty before the start of the Covid-19 crisis,) this reality of it should be obvious. Disability Support Pension recipients have mostly missed out on any of the financial supports offered to other demographics during the now two-year long pandemic, while the government has refused to act on a Royal Disability Commission recommendation to collect specific data on the numbers of disabled people dying from contracting the disease. It chose instead to sweep them under the rug using the dehumanising rhetoric of ‘underlying health conditions’, which implies that their deaths were unavoidable because of how they lived.

Modelling has shown that over 25,000 Australian citizens will most likely die from Covid and Covid-related illnesses if the government proceeds with opening the country once 80 per cent of the Australian population has been vaccinated. As vaccinated people can still spread and carry Covid-19, even if they aren’t showing signs of the disease, unvaccinated disabled people will have no protection. They will be among the most-impacted demographics for the deaths that will occur because of this, and the government won’t even care enough to make a record of them.

It might therefore sound crazy for a group of people most statistically likely to die due to their ‘underlying health conditions’ to refuse a free, potentially life-saving, and scientifically well-grounded medication promising to protect them from the worst of its risks. And It may seem natural to be surprised at the significant number of disabled people putting off their vaccinations. Yet how could a rational disabled person be expected to trust the heath advice of a government that not only refuses to materially accommodate them, but also shows time and again that fails to understand their lived reality or their basic needs?

The enquiry into the ‘purpose, intent, and adequacy’ of the Disability Support Pension recently exposed the poverty and hopelessness of critically disabled welfare recipients, all of whom have already endured harsh, intentionally-stringent eligibility requirements to ‘prove’ their incapacity for work, and their need for regular financial payments to survive. In addition to the these disabled people living in poverty, studies show that over 40 per cent of the recipients of the even lower, even more inadequate Jobseeker allowance are also disabled. It’s not a stretch to suppose that their lives will be harsher on a lower, ultimately crueller payment, when even the Disability Support Pension—which comes without the punitive ‘participation requirements’ that often rob jobseekers of the money they require to survive—is insufficient to meet disability pensioners needs, let alone offer them the independence or agency that Locke calls the defining feature of ‘all mankind’.

Clearly then, the real absurdity is in the government refusing to improve or even take responsibility for the sorry state of disability support within Australia. The growing mistrust that vaccine-hesitant disabled people have for the advice of both our politicians and the medical community has clear roots. While the vaccines themselves appear to be mostly safe, it’s difficult if not impossible to find out which conditions may increase the risk of serious side-effects, including death, and the constant insistence from both medical and government authorities that ‘catching COVID-19 would be worse,’ are not helpful, when it comes to helping to alleviate that entirely rational anxiety.

It’s impossible for any reasonable individual to trust a ‘commonwealth’ whose mouth-pieces continually affirm through rhetoric and action that your needs are less important than the needs of other people. That your speech can be ignored, that your care is de-prioritised, that your poverty or ‘underlying health conditions’ mean that when you die, you won’t be counted, and your death was the result of your bad choices, not because of your society abandoning you. Yet, this is the reality disabled people have to live in every day, and most of us are not just marginalised because we’re disabled: race, gender, class, and sexuality are vectors for increased oppression too. The way to solve vaccine scepticism therefore, isn’t via force or using shame, and it won’t be helped by appeals to personal responsibility or civic duty either.

The only way to solve this issue ethically is to see disabled people as full people, and repair the social contract with them that the government and our society have undermined for years. If you a treat a person like a beast, they will become one. The crimes of beasts you have abused are all your fault.


Image: Antonio Ligabue, ‘Tigre Reale’ (1941)

Maddison Stoff

Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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  1. A great piece Maddison and I wholeheartedly agree that citizens with underlying health conditions should be treated as full people by our governments. Thanks for writing about this important topic.

  2. when this article started out by highlighting the deeply ableist rhetoric of ‘rationality’ & ‘reason’ that is so deeply entrenched in westernised society’s morality, we had high hopes.

    but then the article turned into an assimilationism party for those who are able to assimilate into society’s bigoted ideals of ‘reason’ & ‘rationality’ throwing the rest of us under the proverbial bus.

    instead of saying “linking rationality to goodness and validity, and lack of reason to crime, violence and deserving to suffer or die is ableist and needs to stop” the article said “but we ARE rational! look, we’re the nice good disabled people who play by society’s rules! don’t worry, you can still hurt the disabled people who aren’t rational, they still deserve to suffer. just be nice to us rational ones!”

    aside from that, we fully agree with the general message of the article, though. it’s very accurate on all other counts.

    1. Hi there, I appreciate your thoughts. 🙂 Assimilationism is not something that I personally believe in and was not something I intended in encourage in this article. You might be interested in the piece I wrote immediately after this one? It talks more about what would actually be required for society to accommodate us properly. I think the last line also shows that I don’t believe “irrational disabled people” deserve to suffer for it either? I agree with you about your takes regarding rationality in general too. I just didn’t go down that line because I think that would have needed me to write another essay for that argument.

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