As Covid-19 spread across the globe earlier this year, it was termed the ‘greatest equaliser’ since it did not discriminate between the rich and poor. However, after a while and upon closer introspection, it became clear that the coronavirus was in fact having a more adverse impact on the most vulnerable sections of society.
People with disabilities and special needs are thus one of the worst affected groups. The primary reason behind this is their dependency on maintaining close contact with their caregivers and need for physical support to even sit up from the bed. Therefore, these people have no choice but to continue physical contact despite ‘social distancing’ becoming the new normal for the rest of society. Unfortunately, but understandably, caregivers themselves have become cautious and try to keep a safe distance from their patients — while it is for the good of the patients themselves, the concept of detachment is hard to fathom for the disabled and elderly.
Shafiq-ur-Rehman, general secretary of the Asia-Pacific region for Disable Peoples’ International, an organisation working on disability issues, said the pandemic has stalled all movements aimed at social inclusion of the disabled and bringing them into the mainstream.
A polio survivor himself, Shafiq explained that the disabled are already isolated and the concept of social distancing has estranged them even further. He stated that it is a known fact that the most vulnerable are hit the hardest by Covid-19, citing the examples of the high death rates in nursing homes from Europe to North America.
With regards to the response in Pakistan, Shafiq lamented that not even a single emergency ward of any hospital has disabled-friendly toilets or beds. Similarly, none of the quarantine centres or field hospitals established as part of the emergency response by the government employed special facilities for the handicapped. “This shows we are not even accounted for,” he regretted.
Alarmingly, he also claimed that people with hearing impairments are dying the most among disabled persons as there is no way to communicate to them facts about the dangers of Covid-19. Moreover, as they have no restrictions on their mobility, the deaf continue to come in contact with people every day — many of whom could be coronavirus positive. “Irfan, a deaf person and member of Pakistan’s national cricket team for the disabled, died from Covid-19 but it hardly even made news,” he added. Interviews with some disabled persons revealed that their deaths are often seen as a relief for the challenged souls as well as their families.
However, all is not lost. Dr Izhar-ul-Haq, the operations director at Punjab Welfare Trust for the Disabled (PWTD), shared that their network of teachers, supported by their partner organisation Amin Maktab, provided relief packages to families of special children enrolled with them. The PWTD’s teachers teach special children at their homes, according to their specific disabilities and needs.