Include persons living with disabilities in Covid-19 responses

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EDITOR —The Covid-19 pandemic that started at the end of 2019 in China has spread like veld fire and now affects almost every country in the world.

Whole societies have been locked down with many industries facing collapse.
Whole societies have been disrupted, many facing job losses as economic and social activities are brought to a halt.

In the middle of this commotion, persons with disabilities, constituting about 15 percent of the world population, are almost forgotten in Covid-19 responses despite being among the most vulnerable in the society.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) obligates states to take measures to ensure protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, conflict and humanitarian emergencies.

Many persons with disabilities have bemoaned lack of adequate information about the pandemic as government communication strategies failed to adequately address the needs of many persons with disabilities, particularly those with sensory and intellectual disabilities.

Lack of information in sign language, braille, audio and plain language version means that many have missed vital information, putting their lives at risk.

In some cases information in sign language was made without the involvement and consultation of deaf persons.
Protection from the virus involves practising good hygiene and distancing.

Due to the link between disability and poverty, many persons with disabilities cannot afford soap, sanitisers and masks.

The government has not made these available to persons with disabilities, thus further putting them at risk.
The national lockdown, now in its fifth week, was introduced by the government as an emergency measure in an effort to arrest the spread of the coronavirus.

This also saw schools being closed early and the opening of the second term being deferred.
This benefited children with disabilities in residential schools who were taken home.

However, by the same action of lockdown the government took away many persons with disabilities’ livelihoods.
Because most of them depend on vending, they didn’t have enough money to stock up on foodstuffs and, as a result, many of them are now on the brink of starvation.

There was not enough time to prepare for the lockdown. While the government promised to avail funds to the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, the funds have not been disbursed and the promised money, at $200 per person, will not be adequate.

The government should avail food hampers for the vulnerable during and beyond the lockdown.
Many persons with disabilities have medical conditions; some of which are as a result of their conditions and require chronic medications.

Due to loss of source of income they are at risk of defaulting on their medication.
There also has not been any clear communication on access to medical treatment during the pandemic.

As a result many persons with disabilities do not know if they will be able to access medical care on the same basis as everyone else in society.

Restriction in movements means that many persons with disabilities were separated from their assistants, further hampering their mobility and ability to live independently.

Issuance of permits during the lockdown does not take into account assistants of persons with disabilities.
There should be measures to ensure persons with disabilities have some form of freedom to move to meet their needs.

The government needs to include persons with disabilities in the disaster response taskforces at national and local levels. This will ensure that the needs of persons with disabilities are planned for from the very beginning.

Disaster and emergency management structures need to be sensitised on disability issues so that once they are activated the needs of persons with disabilities will be taken into account.
Access to food and medication for persons with disabilities should be prioritised in emergency situations like what we are witnessing now in order to preserve lives.

Systems, including social safety nets, should be cognisant of the vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities due to their impairments.

The pandemic and lockdown period should provide the government with an opportunity for introspection in terms of response to emergencies and the situation of persons with disabilities.

The failures and shortcomings of the response can be used as lessons for the post Covid-19 period.
The priority should be on restoration of the livelihoods of persons with disabilities.
In addition, government should build disaster management systems that are responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities.

This can be achieved through consultation and effective involvement of persons with disabilities at all levels.

Lovemore Chidemo 

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