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Priority to PwDs in testing, treatment and vaccination of coronavirus

Covid-19 is cruel. It has been reflecting our vulnerabilities and resurfacing the realities behind the loud political propaganda. It deliberates that you are your own saviour. Instead of standing strong behind you, coronavirus along with our so-called leaders has left its countrypeople disabled. Besides, think about the Person of Disability — how must they be bearing the burden of the inequality even more in such pressing times. Where even the mightiest are falling, finding it hard to come in terms of the reality which has left humanity paralyzed. Think about the fellow country people who for long has been seen in such pity light. 

They also tend to be stigmatized and discriminated against and lag behind others with respect to access to basic health infrastructure and accessibility. Like you Covid-19 has further marginalised people with disabilities.

The collapsing healthcare, the ineffective state and central governments may have extended support to their citizens, however, there still a section of society that have been inadvertently omitted. Persons with disabilities (PwDs) — more than one billion in number globally — are one such group.

Despite governments having taken drastic steps, including offering varying degrees of support to their citizens, there remain certain sections of society that have been inadvertently excluded. Persons with disabilities (PwDs) — more than one billion in number globally — are one such group. 

According to Census 2011, India had 2.68 crore PwDs constituting approximately 2.21 per cent of the total population. India enacted the first legislation for PwDs in 1995, which has been replaced by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. The Act is harmonized with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006, and lists 21 categories of disabilities. India also formulated its first National Policy for PwDs in 2006.

It is not self-centeredness, it is ignorance. The advocacy which talks about how to s at safe during the pandemic hasn’t addressed the people with disabilities, who are immobile or living with mental illnesses to follow these instructions. “Containment measures, such as physical distancing and self-isolation, maybe impossible for those who rely on the support of others to eat, dress, and bathe.” 1 The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a document highlighting this issue, and explaining how PwDs may be at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19. 

The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPWD) acknowledges that PwDs are more vulnerable to the virus because of their physical, sensory, and cognitive limitations. These limitations come in the way of their capacity to access, interpret, and use the information and services being made available to deal with Covid-19, and can lead to further marginalisation. 

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has also mandated that under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, departments in the states and union territories should disseminate information on Covid-19 in audio formats and Braille, while also ensuring that the government websites are accessible.

Is accessibility to be limited to the websites and not the hospitals and health centre? How will Pwds get vaccinated? Is there any provision for them? 

Such as washing hands for 1 minute, home quarantine and work from home is a privilege for them. 

For example: 

  • 1. Accessibility problems may restrict how often PwDs are able to wash their hands
  • 2. PwDs who require support, how will they practice physical distancing? Furthermore, caregivers may be unwilling to render services due to the contagious nature of the novel coronavirus
  • 3. How will people with mental impairments cope with self-isolation?
  • 4. How will people with visual disabilities rely on touch functions for mobility and work? It will increase their risk of infection, will it not?
  • 5. Public health information remains inaccessible, which acts as a barrier, particularly for people with hearing impairments

PwDs remain at greater risk due to the underlying health conditions, particularly those related to immune system function, heart disease, respiratory function or diabetes, are more likely to be infected with Covid-19.

Recently, The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan) released an office memorandum to give “Priority and preference to Persons with Disability in testing, treatment and vaccination of coronavirus” 

“Section 25 (1)© of the RPwd, 2016 which mandates priority in attendance and treatment, M/O Health and Family Welfare is therefore required to issue appropriate instructions to State/UT health authorities and healthcare institutions under the control to ensure that special provision be made in Covid 19 testing, vaccination and treatment centres for priority in attending to and treatments of PwDs.”

However, seeing the despair amongst people and the crumbling state of affair, it is hard to comprehend that the guidelines are just mere words finding their relevance only in papers. The government and its system have disintegrated under the massive burden of patients, and deaths. As far as we can see, we see havoc, confusion and misery. 

The actual implementation has guidelines has not found its getaway and hence, the guidelines are just ceased in ink.

A tangible implementation entails long-term preparedness and awareness. It needs a pre-planned inclusivity strategy. A recent study indicates that “little progress has been made in implementing these guidelines, leaving people who are differently-abled to rely on second-hand information, which at times could be diluted and/or misinterpreted and misleading. Lack of captions and sign language communication in media coverage further exclude people with hearing impairments. Moreover, those with inaccessibility or people with hearing dysfunction, who depend on lip-reading, are unable to communicate with doctors and health workers in this time of crisis.”

Recently, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Bombay High Court by two Mumbai-based lawyers seeking directions to the Centre, state government and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to provide door-to-door Covid-19 vaccination facility for senior citizens above the age of 75, physically challenged, bedridden or specially-abled, and facing difficulties in visiting vaccination centres. The petition stated:

 “There are specially-abled and handicapped citizens across the country who are eligible for vaccination but are unable to visit Covid centres due to their disability, and need utmost care and support to get them vaccinated. If the door-to-door vaccination facility is made available to them, then they will get vaccinated in time without causing further health disaster,” the plea stated.

On February 12, the Madras High Court had asked the Tamil Nadu government to ascertain whether it could consider including people with disabilities as a priority group for vaccination. The court made the observation on a public interest writ petition filed by disability rights activist and polio survivor Meenakshi Balasubramania. The court also directed the Tamil Nadu government to take steps for prioritising COVID-19 vaccination of persons with disabilities irrespective of whether they have attained the age of 45.

Likewise, ahead of the second phase of the vaccination drive that began on March 1 in India, disability rights groups and activists have sought removal of the age criteria for people with disabilities, and the inclusion of all categories of disabilities in the drive and also shots for up to two caregivers of those with severe disabilities.

However, the urgency to address the needs and requirement of the person with a disability cannot be overstressed.

A person with disability is not just socially stigmatised but bear the burden of lack of economic opportunity. 

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Arman Ali, Executive Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) asked for uniformity of pensions, increase in ex-gratia payments, announcement of an adequate economic package, information in accessible formats, and the enforcement of comprehensive, strict guidelines for the protection and safety of PwDs.

The government alongside the policymakers have always approached the needs of PwDs with a laid back attitude. In this pandemic, which can be easily designated as the worst crisis to humanity, we forgo one section of society. Here are a few steps to create an inclusive approach to fight against the ubiquitous virus and stand together in this , ‘leaving no one behing’:  

  • The first and foremost is to set up exclusive helplines (for example, telephone and e-mail) for PwDs to communicate with the government, NGOs and other organisation ask questions, and raise concerns. 
  • There must be exclusive section for PwDs in the Aarogya Setu app with information related to PwDs.
  • Availability of food or rations should for free or at affordable rates
  • Direct cash assistance can be provided, along with special provisions under the public distribution system (PDS) for PwDs
  • Providing financial compensation for families and caregivers who need to be self-isolated and are prone to infection
  • Ensuring facilities at quarantine centres and provision of transportation to and from the centres
  • While these are times when everyone needs to take good care of themselves and interact with others with caution, this is also the time for society to be aware of the needs of PwDs, and to ensure we do not forget those in need of assistance, support, and understanding.

Given the lockdown and the loss of livelihoods, the onus rests on the legislative and administrative agencies to address these gaps and to ensure the inclusion of PwDs, both in letter and spirit.

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