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COVID-19: People with disabilities facing tough times – UN calls for people with disabilities to be at centre of response

COVID-19: People with disabilities facing tough times – UN calls for people with disabilities to be at centre of response

By Kingsley Ighobor.

Africa Renewal – Bankole Labody Oyou, a 24-year-old mass communications student in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, was born blind.

He always relies on a family member or friend to get around the city and to class at Fourah Bay College, which is perched on Mount Aureol in central Freetown. He says that COVID-19 has complicated life for people living with disabilities.

“We are suffering,” he told Africa Renewal. “Some [disabled people] have no family members to care for them. We are told to stay indoors, but we have no food to eat. Subconsciously, the government and the community forget that we exist. I have not heard anyone discuss our plight on the radio.”

According to the UN, persons with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Even under normal circumstances, the one billion persons with disabilities worldwide are less likely to access health care, education, employment and more likely to live in poverty and experience violence.

COVID-19 further compounds this situation, particularly for people with disabilities in fragile contexts and humanitarian settings. They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities.

Kenyan Paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike agrees. “People with disabilities are relegated to the background. The pandemic simply worsened an already bad situation.”

Ms. Wafula-Strike is founder of the Olympia-Wafula Foundation to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

In an interview with Africa Renewal, she listed several obstacles currently confronting people with disabilities. “They are not consulted before COVID-19 messages are conceptualized, and the channels of dissemination are not accessible to them,” she says. “Many don’t own radio or television sets; some of them are visually impaired and can’t read or write.”

She is also unhappy with the uniform application of COVID-19 transmission measures, without due consideration for persons with disabilities. “The police treat people living with disabilities like everyone else. Caregivers who, for example, assist them get on wheelchairs and with other activities, are now expected to practice social distancing. How do they [disabled people] survive?” she asks.

Ms. Wafula-Strike is also concerned about the increasing incidences of sexual violence, particularly against women with a disability “who have been forced to remain indoors.”

As of 2 May, about 39,749 COVID-19 cases and 1,660 deaths had been reported in Africa. Should cases increase suddenly, Ms. Wafula-Strike worries that hospitals could be overwhelmed, making it difficult for people with disabilities to receive much-needed healthcare. “They could begin to die behind closed doors.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) echoes Ms. Wafula-Strike’s concerns, adding that basic hygiene measures such as “handwashing, sinks or water pumps may be physically inaccessible” to people with disabilities.

The organisation has published a list of protective mitigation measures that can be adopted by people with disabilities, governments, communities and health workers.

People with disabilities should, if possible, avoid crowded environments and work from home, advises WHO.

It recommends that COVID-19 information materials include “captioning and sign language… converting public materials into ‘Easy Read’ for people with cognitive impairment.”

Furthermore, there should be financial compensation for families and caregivers, including “paying, for a time-limited period, family members for support provided during normal hours.”

Healthcare workers could adopt tele-health such as providing telephone consultations, text messaging and video conferencing for the delivery of health care and psychosocial support for people with disabilities.

Ensure nobody is left behind in the COVID-19 recovery process is critical too.

“I urge governments to place people with disabilities at the center of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts and to consult and engage people with disabilities,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the launch of a UN report that recommends a disability-inclusive response and recovery for everyone.

Among the report’s recommendations is the need for governments, donors, UN agencies and other actors to establish accountability mechanisms to monitor investments and ensure disability inclusion in the COVID-19 response, including through the collection and disaggregation of data by disability.

In addition, new investments must not create new barriers for people with disabilities — if considered from the design stage, ensuring accessibility can cost as little as 1% more.

Some governments and non-governmental organisations are already taking measures to cushion the effects of the pandemic on people with disabilities. For example, the Sierra Leonean government has provided US$25 and half a bag of rice for each person with disability.

But Mr. Oyou says that is too little. “We cannot live on US$25 for months.”

Ethiopia is translating COVID-19 messages into local languages and the country plans to make communication materials accessible to those with hearing, seeing and learning difficulties, as well as to those with mental illness.

South Africa has set aside million US$10.6 million to assist small, medium and micro enterprises in the hospitality and tourism sector, with priority given to people with disabilities and women.

In Nigeria, Christian Blind Mission, a Germany-based international Christian development organisation, is helping with sign language interpretation of COVID-19 messages.

The International Disability Alliance—a coalition of more than 1,000 organisations working on disability issues—has launched the COVID-19 “Disability Rights Monitor” to track measures countries are taking on the “core rights of persons with disabilities including the rights to life, access to health and essential services.”

These may be impactful, says Ms. Wafula-Strike; however, she’s very concerned should COVID-19 cases in Africa increase dramatically. “Something must be done urgently to prepare for such a situation. A country is judged by how it treats its vulnerable,” she said.

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