• Tuesday, Jun 02, 2020
  • Last Update : 02:56 am

Disability in the time of Covid-19

  • Published at 05:12 pm April 2nd, 2020
wheelchair disability
Photo: BIGSTOCK

This is a difficult time for anyone, but a nightmare for persons with disability

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15% of the world’s population experience some kind of disability. Some observers and experts in Bangladesh suggest that the percentage may be nearer to 10% and therefore about 16 million Bangladeshis may have some kind of disability of varying severity.

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting most of the countries of the world. Until now, not very many cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Bangladesh, but many experts fear that the virus could sweep through the country, seriously affecting the very poorest, particularly at risk being those who live in slums and the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. 

Already with the shutdown/lockdown in place in the country for, altogether, over two weeks, the poorest are and will be most affected. Daily labourers of all kinds and workers in the garment industries are extremely fearful of their future.

Over recent years, the government and many NGOs have trained persons with disabilities in very many occupations and even some of the garment industries have provided employment to some of the persons with physical disabilities by adapting their workplaces. 

Others have been trained in different home-based income generation activities. Now there is no work, no income, and the future for persons with disabilities looks bleaker than for others. It is not clear if any of the government relief packages announced will assist persons with disabilities. 

In addition, it is not clear if every kind of assistance is clearly mentioned or advertised in a form that persons with disabilities can understand. Have any of the announcements on TV been with sign language interpreters? Have any leaflets been made in braille for persons with visual impairments? What about messages on the radio?

Many persons with disabilities need the assistance of a care-giver. This assistance usually involves close physical contact. I have heard that the families of some care-givers, who are not family members, have persuaded the care-givers to give up their work for fear of infection from Covid-19 because “social distancing” cannot be maintained. This is a nightmare for a person with a disability who needs someone to physically assist them.

Representatives or officials of municpal wards, union parishads, and upazilas should already know the locations of persons with disabilities in their areas who are vulnerable and should make sure that those households receive food packets and also, and most importantly, soap and hand sanitizers for both the person with a disability and their care-giver. 

The ministries concerned -- Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Welfare -- should order that persons with disabilities should not be left behind. Recently, even in the US, concern was expressed that persons with disabilities were being left out, so that the following statement was recently released -- “Our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism,” said Roger Severino, director of the Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. 

“Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills and older persons should not be put at the end of the line for health care during emergencies.”

I write these few words with a certain amount of emotion. My son, a doctor in the UK, has just recovered from Covid-19 and is back at work and his brother, who has a severe learning disability, is in an adult care home in London, and at the moment equipment for the staff of  care homes as well as for the National Health Service in the UK is in very short supply.

I, therefore, feel the urgent needs of persons with disabilities both in UK and here in Bangladesh and, so I sincerely hope that support for persons with disabilities and their care-givers in Bangladesh will be carefully and strictly ensured. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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