Covid-19 and Human Rights Concerns for Persons with Disabilities in Southern Africa.


By Auma MI Dinymoi,

23 April 2021

PHOTO CREDIT: Meri Hyöky for The Hub

The Centre of Human Rights at the University of Pretoria shares their insights and research findings on the Human Rights Concerns for Persons with Disability in Southern African collected through a global Disability Rights Monitoring Survey which they conducted in 2020 in an effort to understand how the global pandemic has affected those members within our society who live with different disabilities and impairments. This piece is written by Auma MI Dinymai, a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law as well as a researcher under the Disability Rights Unit of the Centre.

By the late months of the year 2019, emerging from the Eastern part of the globe, a storm had begun to brew -stealthily, but steadily. By March 2020, the raging clouds were grey, heavy and looming, with an imminent threat of a global pandemic. The world drew its curtains, bolted its locks, turned off the lights and went to sleep, as we awaited the passing of the storm. In what seemed like an alternate dimension, there were persons who did not go to sleep. Choosing to stay up, they pensively watched the broken bolts on their doors and tattered curtains on their windows. Within their means, these persons with disabilities had readied themselves, yet they could not help but wonder if they were prepared enough to face the eye of the storm, if there was something they or someone else -maybe the governments- could have done different.

The Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria in conjunction with other global disability partners launched -in a timely manner, a global Disability Rights Monitoring Survey at the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Among others, this survey was motivated by the real fear that the indiscriminate application of emergency measures by governments would aggravate an already grim situation for persons with disabilities characterised by limited access to social and economic services, health services, equal education, among others. Although the survey was approached with a global outlook, the overwhelming responses received from over ten Southern African Countries led by South Africa and followed by Zimbabwe and Zambia revealed that there was a real and tangible impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on persons with disabilities in Southern Africa. It was evident that when -in response to the pandemic- governments across Southern Africa imposed lockdowns and other emergency restrictions, they omitted deliberate measures for the inclusion and accommodation of PWDs.

Access to information on Covid-19 for persons with disabilities was also reported to have been hampered, with the majority of respondents stating that the information available to them was not comprehensive. Rather, it was limited in some respects and importantly, not enough for them to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to themselves. There are several specialised formats through which information can be availed for persons with disabilities with respect to their different abilities, such as easy language, plain language, interpretation, sign language, audio formats, and multiple languages. However, except for South Africa, these specialised formats were not adopted by Southern African governments. In most Southern African states, information was provided in sign language targeting deaf and hard of hearing persons. However, persons with disabilities in South Africa were sceptical of the quality of sign language interpretation. The public and private dispensation of information therefore left out several persons with disabilities such as persons with intellectual disabilities, persons with down-syndrome, persons on the autism spectrum as well as those with cross disabilities.

Because of the indisputable evidence of a disproportionate burden of the pandemic on persons with disabilities, some governments adopted social protection measures to support persons with disabilities. These measures included carrying out their needs assessments, increasing the disability benefits, providing benefits where none existed before, providing financial assistance to care-givers and family, extending the identification and registration of persons with disabilities, among others. However, these measures were only adopted in some states. In other states the measures adopted were not significant to help persons with disabilities cope with the effects of the pandemic.

The above are general examples of instances where the human rights of persons with disabilities were impacted by the pandemic. From the foregoing, one would be excused to lose sight of the more dire consequences that the pandemic visited upon the more vulnerable groups of persons with disabilities. Yet, children, women, older persons, homeless persons, as well as those in the rural setting faced the above challenges with an even greater, more specialized intensity owing to the intersectionality of their vulnerabilities. The right to education of children with disabilities came to a standstill because the alternatives offered were neither inclusive nor available for all the learners whose needs warranted special attention. The measures adopted by governments to protect the life, health and safety of these people largely ignored their heightened vulnerability. 

To fulfil the obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by which most of the Southern African governments are bound, it is imperative that governments cast away the indifference in their approach and ensure guaranteed access to health services and support for PWDs during the continued fight against Covid-19. This includes rehabilitation, medication and equipment, therapies, or development interventions and physiotherapy sessions in hospitals. For a collective effort towards curbing the spread of Covid-19, the government must commit to make all Covid-19 information more accessible to persons with disabilities through the consistent employment of not only sign language interpreters, but also other disability friendly communication formats.

It is rather unfortunate that persons with disabilities were generally not inclusively and intentionally sheltered from the storm that was the Covid-19 Pandemic by their governments. However, it was merely symbolic of a system that was bursting at the seams with exclusion, discrimination, and at times, indifference. It signified, above all, a pressing need for inclusion of persons with disabilities in policy making and implementation during -and after- the Covid-19 pandemic.

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