Opinion

Persons with disability in COVID-19 era

Several months ago, countries all over the world adopted a lukewarm attitude towards events unfolding in China, no one thought the virus was that serious, and since it was “made in China”, “it was not bound to last longer.”  As a result, World leaders kept singing the chorus, “it is early days yet, but we are prepared”. Oblivious to the fact that the Coronavirus was dynamite soon to explode on a global scale.

 As the virus began spreading beyond the shores of China, with its true danger unravelling in Europe and America, it was clear no one was prepared to deal with it. Sooner than later, the World Health Organization [WHO] declared the situation in March as a global health emergency, for that matter, a pandemic. Hurriedly, governments started putting in place plans and measures to control and deal with the situation in their countries. In a split of a second, the whole world came to a standstill. Aircraft were grounded, borders were closed, travel plans halted, and social gatherings prohibited. In effect, those things that brought us together threatened us more than ever. The virus is everywhere but up until this time, the thought of persons with disabilities never came to mind, and if it has, not enough measures are put in place for them.

It was during those frantic moments that it was widely agreed that, the most at-risk people of the Novell virus are the aged population and as such, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the United States etc., strengthened and toughened measures at various residential care homes to protect the aged. However, persons with disabilities continued to be forgotten and left behind.

You would agree with me, groups classified internationally under the vulnerable category should not only be limited to the aged, but should also include persons with disability, women, and children. However, the last three groups have been left to their fate. The neglect to persons with disability is most startling, as their risk of contracting and spreading the virus is just as high compared to the aged. Admittedly, some aged people may have one disability or the other, but they represent a tiny percentage of the larger number of persons with disability globally.

A little over one billion people, representing 15 per cent of the world’s population live with one form of disability or the other. Even though reports further stated that 80 per cent of these people are in developing countries, the reality is that the present situation affects all these individuals. In the US, States such as Pennsylvania and Alabama, persons with disability have sued the State and various health authorities for denying persons with mental illness from enjoying medical treatment when they contract Coronavirus. Fortunately, justice was dispensed, and a review was ordered to include these individuals.

No matter how independent you are as a person with a disability, you will need someone to be of help. As a result, you stand a higher risk of been infected, and because people would religiously help, you stand the chance of infecting more people than an “abled person”. This in effect would undermine the fight against the virus in the world. This is what makes it very dangerous yet, appears to have eluded policy and decision-makers. 

The good news is that, following the wealth of information on the various protocols, one can stay safe. But are there plans to achieve a more universal and holistic public health sensitization for all persons on the Coronavirus? The answer is no! How can persons with hearing impairment stay safe if they are unable to access COVID-19 awareness raising and information? Governments, particularly in Ghana had to be prompted before sign language interpreters were introduced to interpret the president’s COVID-19 addresses. Another concern worth raising is, does this trickle down to the rural areas? In Ghana, there are about a hundred and ten thousand deaf people according to the 2010 population census, however, only a little over ten thousand have had the opportunity to acquire formal education and thus very few understand sign language. So how is the government of Ghana attempting to inform persons with disabilities about the global pandemic?

Another group of persons with disability that are affected the most by COVID-19 are persons suffering from autism. It must be made known that; this condition is part of mental health diseases, however, they have many specific ways of communicating. This may include specific tools which may be used as a medium to enhance their communication and interactions. Across the globe, there have been several concerns from this section of the populace concerning the rejection and lack of information about the Coronavirus, yet, no concrete measures have been adopted to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, those specialists trained to assist individuals with autism are few and are usually found in schools.  But as schools have been closed, access to these few specialists has been extremely restricted.  The attempt to use technological solutions in the advance world to address the situation has so far not materialized. So, I ask again, how are these people going to know about the virus in other to stay safe?

Let’s be reminded of our friends with psycho-social disability. These are people who find it challenging to isolate themselves from crowds, cannot stay alone and do not have stable minds. To what extent are they protected and what measures are countries adopting to ensure their safety?

What about persons with visual impairment who must move with sighted guides, cannot keep physical distance, and would have to use their hands to touch and feel to recognize? The list goes on but one more important thing is the adverse effect of isolation, quarantine, and the treatment centres friendly to persons with disabilities.

This piece does not only seek to criticize governments but rather seeks to recommend solutions to mitigate the impact of the Novel Coronavirus as far as persons with disability are concerned.

Although it has been advised that, people should stay at home, it should be a state policy to compel all persons with disabilities with close helpers to stay at home and self-isolate. Those working could be asked to work remotely from home if possible or better still grant them paid leave till a point that the threat is minimized e.g. once a vaccine has been developed. Again, organizations at this time should prioritize and emphasize the safety and health needs of their workers to the goal of making a large profit.

Also, the government should engage the services of personnel trained by churches and mosques and to provide accessible mediums of communication e.g. sign language. This would strengthen the workforce of the limited number of sign language interpreters so that the information can get to the rural areas. Parents of persons with disabilities should help in relaying the information to their wards so that they can stay safe and not necessarily rely on the government.

 With the closure of schools, the government should test students with disabilities especially those within higher institutions and provide them with residential facilities with structures available to provide them easy access to food and other essentials. With this, students would have access to academic assistance and resource officers to help with any issues they may face. This also reduces the risk of been infected as they would be largely detached and isolated from the general public.

Again, the government should make the isolation, quarantine, and treatment centres disability-friendly to take care of any person with a disability who may be infected.

Moreover, all individuals in the position to assist should extend a helping hand to persons with disabilities who may be struggling in this trying moment because when it affects one, it affects all. Face masks and enough hand sanitizers should be distributed among all persons with disabilities, in addition to the provision of some financial support and other personal needs, as necessary.  

Furthermore, the availability of accurate and relevant data on vulnerable groups continue to be a major challenge for governments in developing countries. As a result, decision-makers cannot make time and precisely decision on the said groups. Governments should make it a point to put measures in place to have an accurate and up to date data on persons with disabilities to guide future decisions.

Lastly, my humble appeal to the government, as restrictions are eased to transition to the new normal, is that the case of persons with disability should be prioritized, bearing in mind their risk of infection and how dangerous it could be as highlighted above.

It is indeed true that the battle is not only for the government but for individuals and organizations with the capacity to join hands with the government in implementing these solutions. This is essential in supporting persons with disability to stay safe in this pandemic because the infection of one would be flaming in the disability community. Let me pause at this point and extend my heartfelt appreciation to individuals and organizations that have so far supported persons with disability in this dangerous time, God richly bless you.

Authors: Collins Yao Losu and Blessing Henebeng.  

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