COVID-19 task forces only acted after disability rights activists raised the alarm about information not being
provided in an appropriate, disability-friendly format. This robbed people with disabilities of the opportunity to prepare themselves mentally in readiness for movement restrictions.
The effects of COVID-19 are perhaps more profound when viewed through the lens of persons with disabilities. These impacts are many, diverse and vary from country to country and across the diversity of disabilities. This article captures some of the concerns raised during conversations with disability rights activists throughout Southern Africa.
Since COVID-19 hit the Southern African region, and governments put in place COVID-19 protocols and safety precautions, persons with disabilities across the region have grappled with understanding information on COVID-19 and adhering to the safety protocols. The glaring inequalities on accessing information and guidance on COVID-19 are common throughout the region. Disability rights organisations have highlighted the information gaps in the disease, particularly the fact that this information reached people with disabilities later than everyone else, if at all.
COVID-19 task forces only acted after disability rights activists raised the alarm about information not being provided in an appropriate, disability-friendly format. This robbed people with disabilities of the opportunity to prepare themselves mentally in readiness for movement restrictions. Even where later on sign language interpretation was included on national television, persons with disabilities were still limited in accessing most of the information because of digital exclusion due to lack of access and affordability of ICT tools and equipment.
Although some governments have made efforts to ensure information is accessible through sign language interpretation, televised programmes remain inaccessible for persons with visual and hearing impairments because of the absence of transcriptions, sub- titles and broadcasting of important information in local languages.
Access to information on COVID-19 is critical for persons with disabilities, who are at higher risk of developing severe symptoms. Persons with disabilities are less able to access healthcare services, and such services are seldom adapted to their needs, lacking in even basic facilities such as sign-language interpreters and ramps. Calling a healthcare service in the case of an emergency, already a difficult task for most, is even more difficult for some persons with disabilities, such as the deaf. Practical measures such a social distancing is also harder for persons with visual impairment and other disabilities who require support persons to assist them in their daily tasks.
During lock downs and curfews, life was challenging, especially for persons with physical and psycho-social disabilities because there were no reasonable accommodations put in place to support them. There is no information and guidance to accommodate social distancing challenges that relate to persons with disability who need support. Activists noted that people with mental health conditions are not supported to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection. They are either ignored, beaten or chased away when they are found in the streets. Guardians and next of kin are abandoned to figure out how best to protect a member of the family who has a disability, without plans, information or mitigation tips.
In September 2020, a Malawi court declared the Malawi government’s lock down measures unlawful, on the basis that it failed to consider and make accommodation for the needs of citizens, including their right to access health services, to earn a livelihood and to education. The court further noted that when determining lock down measures, the government ought to have considered the impact of the lock down on domestic violence and abuse, especially in the case of women, children and persons with disabilities. This is in line with the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa. The Protocol repeatedly emphasises that States must take effective measures to ensure persons with disabilities are protected from violence, both within and outside the home. In contrast, the enforcement of lockdown regulations increased both domestic violence and police violence perpetrated against persons with disabilities. Women and girls with disabilities are also at increased risk of sexual abuse during a lockdown.
Access to justice for persons with disabilities worsened during the pandemic. Acts of violence against persons with disabilities are often met with impunity. Additional restrictions on movement make it even less likely that persons with disabilities will report the abuse and that the police will act on such reports. Delays in court hearings occasioned by the COVID-19 measures have created additional hardship for persons with disabilities who had urgent matters pending before the courts affecting their lives and livelihoods.
As countries re-opened schools, the school doors remained closed for children with disabilities. Whilst it may be justifiable for children with disabilities who have underlying health conditions not return to school due to risks of exposure, the inequalities of not providing plans for homeschooling for children with disabilities is glaring.
According to activists, this had implications not only on their academic progression but also their health and physical rehabilitation. The children are missing out on stimulation therapy and would likely regress. Making matters worse, there are no mitigation plans and tips given to parents to support the stimulation process. Children not going to school puts a burden of care on parents, particularly women who are in most cases the sole carers of persons with disabilities. The result is families not coping on their own without the support of schools and other services. Social support services to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 measures were often not adequately geared towards households where there are members with disabilities, resulting in severe financial hardship for those families. None of these consequences was considered when making COVID- 19 plans. Also, little effort was made to consult with representatives of persons with disabilities who can provide expert support in developing COVID-19 measures that recognise the needs of persons with disabilities.
Personal autonomy is something that has often been out of reach for persons with disabilities; it is a dream that many persons with disabilities have worked hard to attain over the years, despite long-standing inequalities. Coronavirus, with its strict rules of isolation, distancing, being locked in, has taken that autonomy away from most people with disabilities.
Anna Mmolai-Chalmers, Equality Programme, Southern Africa Litigation Centre