Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Anti-maskers having heartbreaking impact on disabled community

People rightfully exempt from wearing masks are being turned away from supermarkets, partly because anti-maskers are reportedly abusing exemption accreditation.

According to a national disabled community advocate, this is just one consequence of mandatory mask wearing and QR-code scanning which is having a “heartbreaking” impact on people’s wellbeing.

It comes as the NZ Herald revealed concerns over the disabled community being forgotten in the vaccine rollout, with the Ministry of Health only collecting vaccination records for 3 per cent of the estimated 1.22 million disabled Kiwis.

Prudence Walker is the chief executive of the Disabled Persons Assembly, which is a voice for thousands of New Zealanders with a wide range of impairments.

She says stories of people with mask exemptions being turned away at supermarkets and other essential businesses are widespread, because staff are trying to tackle anti-maskers abusing the exemption.

“They’ve shown an exemption card [and been told], ‘Ah yes, that’s probably a fake’,” she said.

“In some cases, [they are] being banned from the store and in multiple cases, the police are being called, which is retraumatising people who are already traumatised in one way or another.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern referenced mandatory mask wearing at yesterday’s 1pm press conference, reiterating a mask is required at all retail outlets, including supermarkets, at alert level 2 and above.

The assembly has issued about 2000 mask exemptions since mid-August when New Zealand went back into lockdown. People wanting an exemption card are encouraged to ring Healthline.

Among other criteria, a person can be exempt from wearing a mask if they have a physical or mental health illness, or condition or disability that makes wearing a face covering unsuitable.

Walker explained this included people who were physically or sexually abused in their past – an experience which made mask wearing incredibly difficult.

She said businesses were wrong to focus on anti-maskers as it came at the expense of those in need.

“It’s heartbreaking the emails that we’re reading.

“The abuse from one group of people of something that is intended for people in need does not negate the human rights of another group of people who legitimately need it.”

Walker roughly estimated the population of people with past trauma who might apply for mask exemption could number in the thousands.

Asked about the stigma these people faced, Walker implored others to consider how confronting it would be to reveal past traumas to strangers, simply to access the supermarket.

“People are sharing more detail when they don’t need to because they are absolutely distressed … predicting the backlash they might get.”

The disabled community has also reported problems complying with QR code scanning for record keeping purposes – something that would become mandatory from today for many businesses and event organisers.

Walker, who lives with a number of impairments following multiple brain injuries, said some businesses were often unaware of how inaccessible QR code posters could be for those who were either physically or visually impaired.

“If we are going to make it mandatory then how about making it mandatory that [posters] are accessible as well, because how can people comply with something they can’t actually access?”

While some businesses were more than happy to move posters when alerted to the issue, Walker said that wasn’t always the case.

“I had a staff member who pointed out heights of QR code posters often and some places, she got a really positive response and they’d move it immediately … some don’t care at all.”

For both scanning and mask wearing, Walker wanted more visibility of communities who were negatively impacted by the mandatory orders and hoped businesses could recognise where they could improve.

A spokesman for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said reports of people falsely claiming mask exemption were “very disappointing”.

“Anyone doing that could leave themselves open to prosecution as face coverings are a legal requirement without a legitimate exemption.

He encouraged businesses to be mindful not everyone may have an exemption card, instead using a letter from their doctor as proof.

“If someone has genuine reasons for not being required to wear a face covering, they’re still entitled to access businesses and services in the same way everyone else is.”

A police spokesperson said they were aware of people without a face covering being denied entry, despite stating they have an exemption.

There had also been a “very small number of cases” where people had forged exemption cards.

“Police have provided guidance to businesses around the wearing of face coverings, including that there may be legitimate exemptions for people not wearing one,” the spokesperson said.

“People are not required to provide an exemption card if they are exempt due to a health condition.”

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