COVID-19 And The Physically Challenged

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The authorities should reach out to people with disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis that also poses serious socio-economic challenges. But no group has been more affected than those living with disabilities. Nigeria has a population of approximately 25 million persons with disabilities (PWDs) and they are among the most socially excluded groups in any community. Every day they encounter difficulty accessing services due to discrimination and stigma. In addition, they are usually forgotten and not prioritised in emergency responses. That is now the case with the COVID-19 responses by the federal government and the 36 states.

From the ‘Nigerians with Disability’ military decree of 1993 which provides “a clear and comprehensive legal protection and security for Nigerians with disability” to the several efforts by the National Assembly culminating in the Disabilities Act 2019, it is clear that the law is not the problem. The main challenge has been the attitude of Nigerians to the plight of this vulnerable group. Nothing has exposed that more than the current efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody has factored in the reality that containment measures such as social distancing and self-isolation may be difficult for persons who rely mostly on the support of others to eat, dress and bathe, thereby making them more susceptible to contracting the virus. Also, stocking up supplies of food stuff can be difficult due to poverty as many rely on begging to survive. Besides, persons with disabilities generally are more vulnerable to the impact of low quality or inaccessible health-care services and isolation centres than others.

As the authorities therefore continue to ramp up efforts to increase surveillance and prevent the spread of coronavirus, with measures such as prohibition of public gatherings, closure of markets and distribution of food items, there is no plan to reach persons with disabilities. To ensure that Nigeria provides an inclusive medical response, states, federal government and service providers can take practical steps like adopting the principle of ‘Universal Design’ to ensure compliance of isolation centres and relief distributions centres with the minimum standards of accessibility. Similarly, testing and isolation centres including toilets and other facilities within them should be accessible to those on wheel chairs. It is critical that all essential personnel in the response, including call-centre operators, doctors and other healthcare staff are sensitized and trained on disability rights and inclusion.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic reveals the deep-rooted level of marginalisation and exclusion faced by persons with disabilities, many of which is occasioned by the gross lack of data on their actual number, where they live, and how to reach them. As this pandemic rages and passes, it is vital that we institutionalise the collection of disability disaggregated data during COVID-19 response to aid future planning and to support government in taking the needed actions for ensuring that no one is left behind. It is also important that first responders identify specific risks that may be exacerbated for persons with disabilities during a crisis, for instance: exploitation, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, especially of women and girls with disabilities.

It is unfortunate that the physically challenged of our society are still discriminated against and face social stigma. From transportation which allows movement and interactions, through health, recreations and even educational services which can make them compete effectively, people with one disability or another are most often discriminated against and deprived of their rights. Everywhere and every day, obstacles are thrown on their paths. In Nigeria today, in spite of the law, the physically challenged are most often denied employment opportunities. To worsen the situation, many are regarded by their families as a source of shame and treated as objects of charity.

The government as a matter of policy must create a conducive atmosphere for the political and socio-economic integration of the physically challenged in our society. At this most difficult period when the whole world is fighting a pandemic, they must be empowered to help themselves and their families.

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The coronavirus pandemic reveals the deep-rooted level of marginalisation and exclusion faced by persons with disabilities, many of which is occasioned by the gross lack of data on their actual number, where they live, and how to reach them.