BY VENERANDA LANGA
THE Covid-19 period brought with it several challenges, but for people with disabilities (PWDs) the suffering was even more intense as some of them that do not have walking aids like crutches and wheelchairs have to use hands to move around.
Covid-19 by its nature needs constant hand-washing and sanitising of hands in order to prevent its spread. However, most PWDs cannot even afford to buy a bar of soap for hand-washing.
Senator representing PWDs in Parliament Rejoice Timire said the suffering of PWDs was worsened by the fact that most parts of the country face severe water shortages. Some PWDs, especially single women with children, have to endure long queues in search of water. The precious liquid is essential for hand-washing during Covid-19 and other household chores.
Timire said other women might be able-bodied, but probably have a child with a disability that needs constant attention, and at the same time they have to fetch water for household use.
“Imagine a woman who has a child with disability and has to leave them at home alone while they go and fetch water. The child can be abused physically or sexually during their absence. Some women are disabled and live alone and they have to rely on neighbours to get water for them. So, the Covid-19 period is even more difficult for PWDs,” Timire said.
“As a representative of PWDs in Parliament, I have also received complaints from most of them that are vendors and sell wares for their survival. During the Covid-19 lockdown period they were grounded and could not sell anything to make a living. When the lockdown restrictions were eased they were not given any support in terms of capital to resuscitate their businesses.
“As a result, a majority of PWDs are now living in poverty. Some PWDs would rely on begging in the streets before Covid-19. However, during the lockdown period most people were not going to work and have no incomes. It is now difficult for PWDs that beg in the streets to be assisted with hand-outs as everyone is struggling,” she said.
Timire said one of the shortcomings of government is lack of a database for PWDs. This makes it difficult to follow them up so that they can be assisted during the Covid-19 period.
“If there are disasters like Covid-19, government usually sets up taskforces. It means that PWDs must be included in those taskforces so that their needs are taken care of. The most important thing is that the country must have a database of PWDs. It will be difficult to budget for them if there is no data to give information on how many PWDs are in the country, who they are and where they are located. Right now, such databases are not available,” Timire said.
In March, government promised to issue out Covid-19 assistance to the vulnerable. At first, the assistance was $180 which was barely enough to purchase a 5kg of the staple food mealie meal which was going for $225. The amount was increased to $300 which is still too little.
Disability activist Tsepang Nare said very few PWDs managed to access the Covid-19 assistance funds. His assertion can be corroborated by the fact that of the one million vulnerable persons that government has targeted to assist, only 210 000 have been assisted since March.
“We used to get drought relief assistance in the form of 50kg of mealie-meal. But in April, we were told that we would get financial assistance instead. As PWDs, it was difficult for us to get our names written down for the Covid-19 assistance because of the lockdown regulations which restricted movement. As a result, most of us did not get that assistance despite that we have struggled with hunger issues during the lockdown period,” Nare said.
He said PWDs have been unable to work during the lockdown period. They were confined to their houses, and this also posed dangers of abuse by relatives and caregivers.
“Most PWDs are informal traders, and my assertion can be supported by a 2014 survey research which was done by the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH) which revealed that only 2% of PWDs are employed in the informal sector. It shows that the rest (98%) are in the informal sector and that the lockdown period severely affected their livelihoods and are living from hand-to-mouth since March when the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were imposed,” Nare said.
While different organisations assisted PWDs with sanitisers and masks, Nare said there were several other needs that went unmet.
“The major challenges for PWDs during the lockdown period centred on lack of food, access to sanitisers, sanitary wear for women and adult diapers and pampers because there are some PWDs that cannot control their bowel movements. The design of masks did not also cater for the deaf and dumb. For instance, a person that is deaf needs to lip read, and so it means that they needed masks that are transparent. PWDs were left out in most key decision-making processes,” Nare said.
“PWDs that use wheelchairs needed to constantly sanitise them. There is too much exposure for PWDs to contract the virus. But the information on Covid-19 patients does not really tell us how many PWDs were affected.”
For instance, there were reports that the senator representing PWD Watson Khupe had to intervene over an issue where a PWDs who was coming from Zambia was booked at a Covid-19 quarantine centre where there were no user-friendly facilities for PWDs in terms of ablution facilities.
“They thought that PWDs would be confined to their houses and were not endangered to Covid-19. But what people are probably overlooking is the fact that most PWDs at home need to be assisted in terms of bathing and getting dressed. As a result, this makes them prone to abuse — sexually and physically. There is a possibility that this could have happened and the cases went unreported due to the 5km radius restrictions of movement during the Covid-19 lockdown period. So, the Covid-19 lockdown regulations were also restrictive because there are no police stations at every 5km radius,” Nare said.
He said while there were hotline numbers availed to report cases of abuse, disability is diverse, for example, some are visually or hearing impaired and cannot access a hotline. Additionally, Nare said dissemination of Covid-19 information was not user-friendly to PWDs.
“The other challenge was access to contraceptives. PWDs also engage in sexual activity, but during the Covid-19 lockdown period it was difficult for them to access condoms and other contraceptives. Firstly, the nearby clinics only took a specific number of people, and, secondly, movement was restricted. There is a high possibility of unwanted pregnancies by PWDs,” Nare said.