Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on people with disabilities

Independent transformation and disability specialist, Tshepo Mothiba, looks at how people with disabilities were impacted during the global COVID-19 pandemic

Author Tshepo Mothiba

The COVID-19 pandemic is undeniably one of the greatest global humanitarian emergencies since the Second World War. Its adverse impact has once again highlighted the deep-seated societal inequalities emanating from, among other things, perpetual discriminatory practices against vulnerable groups, particularly persons with disabilities.

In April 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed that, even though the COVID-19 pandemic endangered all members of society, persons with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted due to attitudinal, environmental, and institutional barriers that are reproduced in the COVID-19 interventions.

The OHCHR further contended that the myriad of constraints and exclusions confronted by persons with disabilities on a daily basis have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the untimely outbreak of the pandemic.

Some of the challenges that confronted persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic include their greater susceptibility to the virus due to pre-existing health conditions; the inability to engage in preventative measures such as physical distancing due to reliance on their caregivers; disruptions to health services that they normally rely on; and inaccessible telehealth tools which are not compatible with certain programmes such as screen readers for those who are blind or visually impaired.

It is, therefore, crucial that the government, healthcare system, non-governmental organisations and the general population understand the reality of people with disabilities in order to support their needs, particularly during humanitarian crises such as those caused by the pandemic.

Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which South Africa became one of the first countries to ratify in November 2007, deals with “situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies”.

It obligates state parties to implement “measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters”.

To this end, states and other pertinent humanitarian actors are required, inter alia, to reform their policies and practices in the context of situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies under the CRPD; ensure active coordination, participation and meaningful consultation with persons with disabilities and their representative organisations, including women, boys and girls with disabilities, at all levels; and build capacity across stakeholders, including both military and civilian, peace-keeping personnel, and other field workers intervening in emergency situations regarding the rights of persons with disabilities.

Considering the capacity constraints and limited financial resources often associated with developing countries like South Africa, the role of the NGO sector has become increasingly crucial in the quest to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the design and implementation of interventions during humanitarian disasters and pandemic eruptions.

The NGO sector through its human and financial resources should complement government efforts by providing the necessary support in cases of government inadequacies.

These may include providing expert advice on appropriate policy interventions, including capacity development programmes to public servants and communities on appropriate response measures for persons with disabilities during a pandemic; conducting research on the efficacy of existing interventions; and evaluating the long-term impact of these interventions on the wellbeing of persons with disabilities.

In conclusion, while governments globally undertook measures to mitigate the lethal nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to consider persons with disabilities at the planning and implementation stages of these interventions cannot be over-emphasised.

The public sector working with the NGO sector must forge effective collaborations with the intention of utilising the available resources judiciously to ensure substantive inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of human development and protection.

This article first appeared in the Inyathelo 2021 Annual Report. Inyathelo works to sustain and strengthen civil society organisations and grow local giving in support of a vibrant democracy in South Africa.

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