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COVID-19: A cry for help

It is now about seven weeks since the dreaded coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic entered the shores of our nation. It has spread to about 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory with numbers of persons contracting the virus increasing on a daily basis. Despite this, those on the frontline of battling the disease, doctors, nurses and other health workers must be commended in their efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

It is very critical that in this “war”, information is afforded to all citizens of the country. Awareness-raising on the dreaded effects of the pandemic could go a long way in getting people prepared. We know full well that there are two main things that need to be done in the fight against the pandemic: information and palliatives.

However, persons with disabilities, the most vulnerable of all groups, have been completely left behind by all governments, both federal and state. Blind and visually impaired persons, persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, and more particularly deaf persons are at the receiving end of government’s ineffectiveness in getting information to persons with disabilities. There is hardly any information in appropriate formats for these persons: Braille and audio for the blind, Easy-Read for persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities and sign language interpretation for deaf persons.

On a daily basis, various ministers and high ranking government personnel dole out daily briefings. Yet, deaf persons are completely shut out. Before we are accused of ignoring the fact of sign language interpretation, during the health minister’s briefings, I must confess that the display of sign language interpretation on those briefings are poor. Most times, the sign language interpreter is shut out of the camera. Television stations in the country have no sign language interpretation for the deaf. In the most recent briefing, a question was put to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, which he deliberately ignored to answer. We know very well that persons with disabilities never get the regard they deserve as natural citizens of the nation. We are always treated so poorly as if we are “beggars”. The Charity model of disability still reigns supreme in a country that has ratified both the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol.

The Sustainable Development Goals agenda calls on all states parties to “leave no one behind”. Yet, Nigeria has chosen deliberately to ignore the plight of persons with disabilities in this difficult period. We are never counted in anything; we are not included in the Presidential Task Force or any state committee to deal with the pandemic. People are always speaking for us or on our behalf. This is all contrary to Article 4 (3) of the UN CRPD which enjoins States Parties to “closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organisations”.

A second issue is that of palliatives. While we are not averse to the lockdown, we are very concerned about the lack of all necessary palliatives that would support persons with disabilities overcome this difficult moment. It is very common that poverty is the bane of all persons with disabilities. Nigerians generally are crying out for palliatives to enable them continue to stay at home. Government has not considered persons with disabilities in this scheme, particularly those in the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps around the country. There are over 300,000 persons with disabilities in the camps in the North-East and other camps dotted around the country. One wonders what supports have reached them.

As we cry out for support services, we make the following recommendations:

–That persons with disabilities be consulted and made to actively participate in the monitoring and implantation of government’s  action plans for disbursements of necessary palliative measures to cushion the effects of being locked down;

–That persons with disabilities be included in all government committees designed to deal with the pandemic;

That information be disseminated to persons with disabilities in appropriate formats: sign language interpretation for deaf persons, Easy-Read for persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities and Braille and audio for blind and visually impaired persons, including ensuring that television stations transmit necessary information through sign language;

That the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control set aside half a dozen SMS lines for the benefit of deaf and hard of hearing persons;

That a data base of persons with disabilities be created within the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to enable government have an accurate data of persons with disabilities in the country, disaggregated by gender, age and impairment type.

Written by Danlami Basharu is the chair, UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

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