As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. And this rings true in our society when it comes to how we treat persons with disabilities.
Our response to Covid-19 pandemic, has laid bare the systematic, entrenched and sometimes deliberate exclusion of persons with disabilities from contributing meaningfully to issues that affect them, with devastating consequences.
Covid-19, declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation in March 2020, has infected millions of people globally, causing tens of thousands of deaths and leaving in its wake devastating socio-economic impacts. To curb the rapid spread of the deadly virus, governments have taken varied measures including recommending for social distancing and handwashing, imposed curfews and restricted movements among others.
To coordinate these efforts, the Kenyan government established a national emergency response committee that is charged with daily communication and awareness raising as well as enforcement of the laid down containment measures. But these efforts have not included the needs and the voices of persons with disabilities, despite the vulnerabilities they face.
As a Kenyan who identifies as having a disability as defined by both the Kenyan Constitution and the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, my colleagues and I are guaranteed the right to be treated equally as citizens of this country in all her endeavours of fulfilling the obligations owed to the citizens.
Persons with disabilities in Kenya are generally classified as vulnerable people by the constitution and a number of measures have been agreed on to equalize opportunities for them with the rest of Kenyans.
The failure to include in the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) an expert on matters disability to offer expert input on disability issues as well as the varied needs and challenges has meant that we were excluded from the national Covid-19 response measures from the outset.
I have been reflecting on Mahatma Gandhi`s words and how the implementation of the various protocols in response to Covid-19 as laid out by the NERC, the curfew (cessation of movement from 7pm – 5am), social distancing requirement, washing hands with soap, sanitising of hands while boarding public transport, getting into buildings or supermarkets etc. and how persons with various forms of disabilities have been coping in the midst of lack of accessible information.
While the NERC has been holding daily briefings through live television broadcasts, updating the country on Covid-19 response measures, while emphasizing to people the preventive measures to take, it took concerted lobbying efforts from organisations of persons with disabilities for the committee to consider stationing a sign language interpreter on-set, for citizens who are deaf to begin receiving these briefs in a language they can understand.
Yet, Kenyan sign language is recognized as an official language within our constitution for Kenyans who are Deaf. This means, for the period this wasn’t available, this category of Kenyans was excluded from accessing valuable information regarding Covid-19 pandemic.
I also imagine a Kenyan who is a wheelchair user or other walking aids trying to board a public transport vehicle back home when the curfew hour is nearing! I picture the reported police brutality on the very first day the curfew was announced and try to figure out how a person with a disability would survive such mayhem; perhaps they were coming from work and couldn’t board the vehicle on time because of the rush and there is no protocol on how persons with disabilities should be allowed into vehicles during this time on a priority arrangement.
Take note that an advisory from the Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health Services only came out on April 20, 2020 instructing employers on how to handle employees with disabilities during the pandemic, a little over a month after the first case was announced in Kenya.
Before that, this group of Kenyans struggled on their own trying to keep their jobs, especially for those that are employed.
And then there is now the ever so famous social distancing measure that we have all been singing about since Covid-19 knocked on our doors. But have we ever stopped to reflect on how, in reality, this works for person with disabilities? In the absence of clear protocols on how this should be implemented for those with disabilities, I am afraid we are being left as collateral damage in this fight. So, how does a person with a visual impairment who depends on a sighted guide navigate these instructions?
How do they know when the two metres distance has been breached either by them or someone coming their way? Should they be left to their own devices even at the risk of falling into a ditch because we are social distancing to fight Covid-19 and thus they cannot have their sighted guide?
Amongst us, there are colleagues who require personal assistants for our daily living and chores and others on constant medication due to their disabilities. How do the protocols on Covid-19 response take care of these different needs where most of them are life and death trade-offs?
I am sure that if we had representation in various emergency response committees both at the county and national level, we would have had proper awareness around disability issues. In which case, a person with mental illness in Kakamega, the Western part of Kenya, wouldn’t have lost his life from lack of understanding by the police who were out enforcing the curfew orders.
Recently, the government of Kenya announced an ambitious program that seeks to cushion the vulnerable groups affected by the Covid-19, especially those living in informal settlements. Our hope is that persons with disabilities who are in need of this support actually get this support and that this does not just end up as another public statement that went out to show how this government treats her most vulnerable with disdain.
Many individuals with disabilities who engage in small scale businesses for their upkeep have been hard hit due to loss of income. They cannot sell their goods and services in town, others cannot commute and thus being on the cash transfer program announced by the government would help cushion them from the devastating effects of Covid-19.
As a country, we need to set off on a journey to begin treating persons with disabilities as citizens with full rights and not second-class citizens whose rights only come a live as an afterthought. Our reality is such that, as a country, we have failed our most vulnerable during this critical time.
While we took steps early to cushion the rest of Kenyans from the dangers of the pandemic, we forgot our most vulnerable, the persons with disabilities. It had to take intense lobbying to get token inclusion that still falls short when it comes to responding to our felt needs. With a significant number of Kenyan being persons with disabilities, totalling 900,000 out of the 42 million Kenyans, it’s my hope that this country will one day accord us equal treatment just as other Kenyans. The right time to demonstrate this can only be during a national emergency as this—Covid-19 that is ravaging the lives of the most vulnerable such as us.
Fredrick Ouko is a disability rights advocate and a programme officer in charge of disability rights at the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa.