The Plight of COVID-19 on PWDs: Lessons from the SAFOD’s Virtual Training
Refilwe A. Monnakgosi
During the COVID-19 Virtual Training Workshop organized by SAFOD SAFOD on the 12th & 13th of October for its national affiliates, a lot of issues – none being new though – were raised by the different SAFOD affiliates. COVID-19 is by now not new to anyone and measures have been taken to safe-guard people’s lives. However, when the governments produced certain regulations, they sidelined people with disabilities and their needs.
Most of the SAFOD affiliates observed that persons with disabilities (PWDs) continue facing many challenges, such as the measures put in place by the governments that area not inclusive of persons with disabilities, like stating that people should only cough into a bent elbow. It was observed that such measures did not take into consideration that people with visual impairment hold their aids on that very elbow, and that can easily have them catch the virus. Similarly, regulations related to social distancing hinder those who need and depend on assistants to get around.
These instances of oversight on matters of inclusion confirm the fears already raised various international stakeholders, including the United Nations Population fund (UNFPA). UNFPA’s Gender Adviser, Leyla Sharafi, once said: “In times of crisis, like COVID-19, persons with disabilities face more barriers to accessing information, education and services and are often overlooked in emergency response.”
But more issues were highlighted during the SAFOD’s capacity training to show how the SAFOD members felt about being excluded or unnoticed wen developing response strategies in their respective countries. They noted that this pandemic affects them as well, even more than others. Yet when it comes to accessibility in the broadest of terms, they could not access information about the virus, particularly the visually impaired. There was no brailed information and those with hearing impairment, there was no sign language interpretation during the COVID-19 updates hence they were left out of the loop.
One lesson that was encouraged to be replicated in combating this virus was the regular washing of hands with soap. However, those who were using the wheelchair found themselves having a tough time doing so, as basins in public toilets were not correctly situated for them, even with the recent public washing spots around the cities, they were placed too high for them to reach therefore making it difficult for them to practice hygiene.
So, how did they protect themselves? Or were they perhaps immune to the virus? In many places, people were made to wash hands with alcohol-based sanitizers, however did anyone stop to wonder what the effects such would have on individuals with albinism? In a case which took place in Zimbabwe was that a young lady with albinism was denied entry into a shop because she refused to use the hand sanitizer on the basis that it hurts her already delicate skin, yet the shop management did not offer her water to wash her hands. What should happen in such situations?
I will leave that one to sit with you. However, from their point of view, the workshops participants felt this was simply because they persons with disabilities were not included when these measures were being put in place.
A statement from the Botswana Socio-Economic Analysis of the Impact of COVID-19 Brief 1 reads: “they are often excluded from the decision-making spaces in crisis yet are often more vulnerable to exposure as they depend on caregivers for daily tasks or require regular healthcare and treatment.” The other thing is that professionals state that the virus lives longer on surfaces and rails, which is heart-wrenching for those who depend on those rails to navigate stairs, as well as those in manual wheelchairs. “How many times do those rails get disinfected,” was the question.
One of the responses most governments implemented was the nation-wide lockdowns, and that proved to be a breeding ground for more emerging issues affecting people with disabilities. People with disabilities are likely to see their existing disadvantages and inequalities amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues that were flagged, of which most countries, even those beyond the Southern African borders experienced were high numbers of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) during lockdown. Women and girls were always on the receiving end of GBV by nature of them being labelled the vulnerable gender, this was even more exacerbated when to women and girls with disability.
It was also stated during the workshop that it became increasingly difficult to address these issues because in most settings they depend on those very oppressive partners for a living. For this reason, the majority of the oppressed would hardly report their breadwinner for assault.
This issue also revealed another gap; that there were not enough safe spaces for women and girls, or those which can cater to women and girls with disability, so often they found themselves being forced to stay in the same abusive homes and endure more abuse.
Statistics showed that in three women in Botswana, for example, had experienced GBV in their lifetime. Globally, incidents of GBV have seen a sharp increase with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related prevention and containment measures, often leaving women trapped at home with the perpetrators.
When will there be equality for all? All that persons with disabilities are asking for is to be included, as the guiding principle of UN, according the workshop facilitator, Malebogo Molefhe, is ‘leave no one behind’. Then why is it difficult to live up to it?
Lessons were, therefore, learnt on the need to conscientize policy makers regarding the intersection of disability with other health issues. SAFOD, its affiliates and other strategic stakeholders needed to raise awareness among governments and policy about the factors that increase the vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities to COVID-19 and violence.
What was also red flagged was that there was no psychosocial support to ease the anxiety of going through a pandemic. Professor Stephen Hawking once stated: “we have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine.”
The battle for inclusion continues. What’s important though to continue intensifying equipping persons with disabilities and their organizations with necessary skills for lobbying and advocating for more inclusive strategies in their countries related to Covid-19 interventions.