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Covid-19 Response: Inclusion of persons with disabilities as an afterthought.

It has been a while since the World Health Organization declared Coronavirus, a pandemic and marshalling the global might of governments, UN agencies, bilateral institutions, businesses and citizenry towards its response.

On everyone`s tongue is Covid-19 and its effects to humanity and world economy, various measures have had to be employed globally to curtail the spread of the virus that a cure is yet to be found. I will not bother you when any terminologies because medical training isn’t my forte and any online search would for surely give you different perspectives thereof.

I am 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. All of these instruments guarantees me and colleagues a right to be treated equally as a citizen of this country in all her endeavours of fulfilling the obligations owed to her citizens.

It should suffice that “ the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Says Mahatma Gandhi. Persons with disabilities in Kenya are generally classified as so by the constitution and a number of measures agreed upon on how to equalize opportunities for them within the mainstream society.

Since the first case of Covid-19 was declared in Kenya by the government on 12th March 2020 and specific measures on how to curb its spread were announced by the President, a National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) on coronavirus was formed to help the country respond to this pandemic. This is where it all started going south; lack of inclusion of an expert on matters disability to advice the team on how their deliberations could take into consideration ,various disability needs and challenges signified where the priorities were, we all know that in the process of decision making-if you are not on the table, it is definite that your place is on the menu.

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 (ceasation of movement from 7pm-5am) for 21 days and now extended for further 21 days, social distancing requirement, washing hands with soap, sanitizing 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 national emergency response committee has been holding daily briefings through live television broadcast to update the country on what is happening around the covid-19 response initiatives, it took various lobbying efforts from organizations 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 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 Kenyan`s were left on their own and no one cared.

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! 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 20th April,2020 to employers on how they could handle employees with disabilities during the pandemic, that is over one month as this group of Kenyans struggled on their own trying to keep their jobs for those that are employed.

We have been hearing social distancing quite a bit since Covid-19 knocked on our doors, but in the absence of clear protocols on how this should be implemented for those with disabilities- I have a feeling 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 does he/she know when the two metres distance has been breached either by him/her or someone coming their way and should they be left to fall in a ditch because we are implementing a social distancing requirement to fight Covid-19 and thus they cannot have their sighted guide?

Amongst us, we have 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 cover these different scenarios where most of them are life and death trade-offs? The reason persons with disabilities have been pushing to be included in the Covid-19 response mechanism informed by all these diverse needs which nobody else can represent other than themselves for an inclusive response.

As a country, it is high time we begun treating persons with disabilities as citizens and not second-class citizens whose issues only become live as an afterthought, I am very sure someone with a mental illness in Kakamega wouldn`t have lost his life from lack of understanding by the police who were out enforcing the curfew were we to have proper awareness around disability issues if there was a representative in various emergency response committees both at the county and national level.

The government has announced an ambitious programme that seeks to cover 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 gets it and this does not just end up as another public statement that went out to show how this government cares for her vulnerable. Many individuals with disabilities who engage in small scale businesses for their upkeep have been hardly hit due to loss of income since they cannot sale their goods and services in town, others cannot commute and thus being on the cash transfer programme announced by the government would help cushion them from the devastating effects of Covid-19.

I am hopeful 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 pandemic such as Covid-19 as it is now, I am sure Mahatma Gandhi would have thought Otherwise-What about you?

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