November 27, 2023

Read in Spanish here.

When Oscar Walter fell ill with COVID-19, he was discriminated against for having Down syndrome. His family, with the support of the Colombara Legal Strategy law firm and the Health and Human Rights Initiative of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law, demands a finding of civil responsibility for the discrimination experienced, and seeks both reparations and measures to prevent future discrimination of people with disabilities.  

Oscar was a young man with Down syndrome who died at 38 years old of COVID-19 at the Félix Bulnes Hospital, in Santiago, Chile. Because he was a person with an intellectual disability, Oscar was deprioritized and mistreated by health personnel. He was not provided with the medical attention he needed, he was not assigned  a clinical bed, nor did he have the chance to use a mechanical ventilator. The authorities did not even attempt to transfer him to another healthcare center where he could receive proper care. This week, his family filed a lawsuit against the Chilean State.

On May 22, 2020, Oscar was admitted to the public hospital with acute respiratory failure and a diagnosis of possible COVID-19 pneumonia. His health condition required urgent and specialized medical attention, with mechanical ventilation and constant monitoring. However, he was only given a regular mask and was kept on a stretcher in the emergency room for five days. On the night of the fifth day, without anyone noticing, Oscar stopped breathing. A nurse found him dead, and the medical staff decided not to resuscitate him.

A few days later, the hospital announced to the press that just for “the peace of mind of the family,” a clinical audit had been ordered. However, when the audit concluded that it could not rule out the possibility that Oscar had been discriminated against, and that a full administrative investigation was therefore necessary, the hospital ignored the recommendation and hid it from the public. Only when the family took steps to sue did the hospital order an administrative investigation, which was also closed without establishing responsibility a few months later.

With the support of the Colombara Legal Strategy law firm and the Health and Human Rights Initiative of the O’Neill Institute, Oscar’s family filed a tort lawsuit over the malfunctioning of the Health Service. The case of Oscar Walter in Chile illustrates the difficulties that people with disabilities face in living their lives with dignity and equal rights. In 2022, the O’Neill Institute’s Health and Human Rights Initiative sent a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on discrimination against persons with disabilities in access to health services in the context of a public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The report emphasized that people with disabilities have experienced situations of discrimination in the contexts of prioritizing health resources and that states must adopt positive measures to ensure the right to health of people with disabilities and prevent discriminatory practices. This case demonstrates the failure of the Chilean State to adopt those measures, and the tragic consequences that can follow from discrimination of persons with disabilities.