People with disabilities run the risk of being left behind amid the COVID-19 pandemic with a lack of adequate healthcare. Raven Benny calls on people with disabilities to be brave
On May 6, at the launch of the Policy Brief on Persons with Disabilities and COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres said: “We must guarantee the equal rights of people with disabilities to access healthcare and life-saving procedures during the pandemic.
“I urge governments to place people with disabilities at the centre of COVID-19 response, recovery efforts and to consult and engage people with disabilities,” he continued.
These are two very important and significant statements made in the interest of the one billion persons with disabilities in the world.
In South Africa, we are as affected by the coronavirus as everyone else on the planet. However, as persons with disabilities, are we worse off than most. We make up 15 percent of the population but are deemed less eligible than others when it comes to access to healthcare.
As a country, we are very fortunate to have sound legislation like the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (WPRPD), which conforms to the international instrument such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). However, we struggle with the implementation of policies.
This is why we must lobby for a Disability Act that will allow recourse for any rights violation. It will hold the government accountable for the non-delivery of services.
The WPRPD reiterates that the primary responsibility for disability equity lies with national, provincial, and local government as well as other sectors of society. It allocates responsibilities to persons with disabilities and their families. The vision of the WPRPD is to create a free and just society that is inclusive of all persons with disabilities as equals.
Yet, this vision becomes blurred when referencing services, like healthcare, in response to the plight of many people with disabilities.
In the WPRPD, disability is described as a complex and evolving concept with services that cut across sectors and programmes. Disability and poverty are closely linked and often the latter is the cause of the former and vice versa.
Without addressing the multiple, and often specific, needs of people with disabilities and their families at community level, poverty in this specific group will remain unaddressed.
There is a general absence of sensitivity about and awareness of issues faced by people with disabilities and their families by policy makers – particularly in rural and underserved communities.
The way in which people with disabilities are viewed by the rest of society plays a huge role in the awareness of their contribution to community life. Even the WPRPD’s definition of disability makes reference to how extraordinary this group is:
It is important to note that persons with disabilities should be defined within the context of defining the beneficiary group for purposes such as affirmative action, protection against discrimination, service delivery, reasonable accommodation support measures, social security, etc.
This does not deem us as needy. We are a group with special features who needs to benefit equally from services.
The COVID-19 crisis is new to us all and requires everyone to act, interact and communicate in different ways. It is indeed an uncertain time for all involved from patients in a hospital to the staff of the local shopping centre. The most important aspect is to be prepared and to prepare our “constituents” with the correct information.
We need to be prepared to be considered unfavourably when it comes to equitable healthcare for all. Many of us are immunosuppressed and some even have co-morbidities that will place us lower on the rung of priorities in a hospital waiting room or triage area. It is a sad but true reality. Our chances might be slim when it comes to accessing adequate healthcare or ventilators, but we must be brave. Brave enough to speak up and out at any human rights violations.
“We must guarantee the equal rights of people with disabilities to access healthcare.”
Brave enough to endure and prepare for the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be courageous enough to adapt and change with the new way of the world even when others are not.
The government and healthcare system might not be able to cope with the influx of new COVID-19 cases. They might not have enough protective equipment or adequate facilities for patients – let alone people with disabilities. We are in for a tough situation as the world is unprepared for all of us.
The problem with preparedness is often that administrators and officials do not think about including people with disabilities in their deliberations and planning. This is exactly to what the UN secretary general alludes.
People with disabilities run the risk of being left behind once again. We will be deemed as ill with multi-morbidities and have a poor prognosis. But we are in this world and cannot be wished away. People with disabilities have fought hard for decades to be included in all spheres of society. The sacrifices and gains made by many before us is not in vain.
The struggle continues. Here we are faced with the greatest test of them all. How do we survive in a post-COVID-19 dispensation?
The good news is that we already know what works for us. We have survived what many are facing today. Many of us have been in this very situation for most of our lives: isolated, faced with difficulties with transport, employment, access to healthcare, limited opportunities for entertainment, socialising, worshipping, and so much more.
As a marginalised group, we have done very well for ourselves. There are many ingenious inventions and gadgets specifically designed to make our lives easier from which everyone benefits. This might just be one of those moments through which we can emerge with new lessons and victories.
But as in every battle, there will be fatalities, losses of life and the world as we know it will never be the same. Those of us who will make it will live to tell the tale. Those who do not will be remembered as victims of a society that was ill-prepared for everyone with some left behind.
Fundamentally, we need social justice, effective inclusion, equal opportunities and decent work. To advance, we need to be bold. We need to be innovative. And we must act together during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
Raven Benny has been a C5, 6 and 7 quadriplegic since 2000. He is married and has five children, is mad about wheelchair rugby and represented South Africa in 2003 and 2005. He relocated from Cape Town to Durban, where he was appointed the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of QASA from August 1, 2019.