BY: BIZIBRAINS OKPEH

Introduction

According to Etieyibo and Omiegbe, Nigeria has an estimated population of about 185 million out of which about 27 million (15%) are persons with disabilities. It cannot be overemphasised that one of the most vulnerable demographics in many emergencies, including health emergency, are persons living with disabilities. This is because, quite apart from the fact that this group of people, especially those who find it difficult to move by themselves without care givers, ordinarily bear much collateral costs relating to their disabilities, their relative poverty makes it all the more difficult to access proper health care during periods of panics which usually accompany any emergencies, like the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

What is a Public Health Emergency or Pandemic?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a public health emergency, particularly a pandemic, is "an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response." This is more so, where the event or disease is "serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected," and "carries implications for public health beyond the affected state's national border." In this light, therefore, Covid-19 which began in Wuhan, China, was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 30th day of January 2020. And since then, nations of the world, including Nigeria, have never remained the same.

The Nigerian Situation

In the case of Nigeria, the Covid-19 pandemic has defiled the swift response witnessed by the country in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, where only one life was lost as the spread of the disease was quickly nipped in the bud. This is largely due to the fact that Covid-19 is a novel virus. Thus, according to the NCDC, as of 25 June 2020, 542 Nigerians have been lost to the disease and an aggregate of 22,020 cases have been confirmed with 13,865 Nigerians still habouring the virus.

Photo Credit: Pulse.ng/Tim Dirven/Panos

Nature of Covid-19

Although many symptoms have been identified to accompany the virus, fever and shortness of breath seem to be the most serious symptoms. And it is contracted primarily by having contact with droplets of infected persons or objects. What more, symptomatic persons can definitely pass the virus to others and asymptomatic persons may also do so. While everyone is at risk of contracting the virus, those with underlying chronic conditions, such as heart diseases, diabetes, etc. are much more predisposed to the harmful effects of the virus, especially death. Nevertheless, Covid-19 is preventable through proper hygiene, such as regular washing of hands with soap and running water or alcoholic-based hand sanitizer, use of medical masks, and social distancing.

The Government's Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government at both the federal and state level has been trying very hard to curtail the spread of the virus while also ensuring minimal hardship to Nigerians, especially persons with disabilities, who are not only at greater risk of contracting the virus but are also at risk of greater suffering due to certain measures introduced by government such as total or partial lockdown as the case may be. Thus, over time, the federal government has accumulated millions of Naira in humanitarian aids from spirited individuals and institutions, which would serve as palliatives to alleviate the sufferings of vulnerable Nigerians, such as persons with disabilities while the pandemic lasts. However, it is both in achieving the balance between curtailing the spread of the virus and ameliorating the pains of persons with disabilities that government efforts seem to have neglected the rights of persons with disabilities.

Lessons from Government’s Response to the Ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic

There is no gainsaying that Covid-19 is a public health emergency and Section 25 of the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 (DAPDA) provides for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities during emergency situations. The section provides that “In all situations of risk, violence, emergencies or occurrences of natural disaster, government shall take the necessary steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons with disabilities taking cognizance of their peculiar vulnerability.” So far, how true has government response complied with this provision and other provisions of the DAPDA? The following lessons may be deduced from governments actions or inaction in respect of persons with disabilities since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, to wit;

Deportation

As part of their strategy to combat the spread of Covid-19, many state governments, especially in the Northern part of the country have resorted to deporting the almajiris, who are deemed as a veritable source for the spread of the disease, andsome of whom are persons with disabilities, to their so-called state of origins. This is an outright violation of their constitutional rights to dignity, personal liberty, freedom of movement, and freedom from discrimination in accordance with sections 34, 35, 41, and 42 of the Constitution respectively. What more, the deportation of persons with disabilities on account only that they are almajiris is a violation of Section 1(1) of the DAPDA which is to the effect that no person with a disability should be discriminated against on any ground or circumstances whatsoever. Instead of deportation, what the state governments should do is to “ensure the safety and protection of persons with disabilities [who are almajiris] taking cognizance of their peculiar vulnerability.”

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Double Discrimination

Closely related to the above is that persons with disabilities now suffer double discrimination from the public and government whose selective and discriminatory response to the pandemic is, and should be, a source of great concern to all lovers of humanity.  This is because such discriminatory response is akin to government double-speaking and may lead to wide community spread of the virus in the hinterland where most of these almajiris are deported to, especially considering that some of them might already be harbouring the virus. In fact, it could amount to a situation of reducing risk to increase risk.

Inherent Biases of Healthcare Providers

It is true that the  Hippocratic oath serves to ensure that health care providers prioritise life over personal prejudices by ensuring that (potential) patients are given maximum and equal attention. Nevertheless, sometimes, the inherent prejudices of healthcare providers towards persons with disabilities seem to overwhelm them, especially during emergency situations, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, whereby they become selective and concentrate on patients that they feel have greater chances of survival other than the patients with very serious and chronic underlying conditions. Hence, Elizabeth Pendo reported that studies have consistently demonstrated that health care providers hold negative views of people with disabilities and fail to “fully appreciate the value and quality of life with a disability.”

This unfortunate inequality in healthcare provision is more so when we consider the inadequacy of equipment such as ventilators at the various isolation centres, being that in some centres, the numbers of patients exceed the official capacity of the centres. This prompted Pendo to further conclude thus; “Governmental and private responses to the COVID-19 pandemic can compound these longstanding health inequalities. In particular, because the COVID-19 pandemic places tremendous strain on our health care system, states, health care facilities, [may begin to develop] protocols to determine how to allocate critical health care resources, especially ventilators, when there is not enough capacity to treat all patients.” If this is not already happening, the possibility is indeed real.

Palliatives

It appears that government’s actions in the area of palliatives are encased in secrecy. This is because there is no account as to the exact measures or conditions upon which these humanitarian aides are made. Even so, most persons with disabilities cannot claim to have benefited from government actions in this regard. Also, even where calls are made for palliatives, the venues are not, sometimes, accessible by persons with disabilities.

Information Dissemination

The dissemination of information in respect of Covid-19 largely ignores the peculiar needs of persons with disabilities. This is more so as most information from government or NCDC is in social media, ignoring the needs of persons who are blind. Also, in most press conferences, persons with difficult hearing are ignored as the conferences do not incorporate sign language. This means that persons with disabilities largely do not know the current situation of things. Thus, increasing the risk of the spread of the virus, and even fatalities among those with serious underlying conditions.

Access to healthcare

Although the DAPDA has enjoined all public parastatals to make their buildings accessible to persons with disabilities within five years of the Act coming into effect (Section 6 thereof), it is very true that, as of today, most public buildings that are being used as testing and/or isolation centres are not disability friendly. This presents peculiar difficulties for persons with disabilities, especially persons using wheelchairs or such other devices in their quest to access medical facilities at this uncertain pandemic time.

Mental Health

The ultimate effect of the non-inclusive response of the government to the Covid-19 pandemic as seen above is that it may serve to worsen or lead to the poor mental health of persons with disabilities who already are at the margin of society now being entrenched by the pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association(APA), “the pandemic might particularly harm the mental health of marginalized populations [such as persons with disabilities] who have less access to socioeconomic resources and supportive social networks.” The factors raised above are indeed “unique stressors and challenges that could worsen mental health for people with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Conclusion and the Way Forward

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of the world as we know it. And has left nations battling to overcome its humanitarian, environmental, and socio-economic effects. As the Nigerian government continues to struggle to curb the spread of the virus, there is even equal, if not greater, need to ensure that all measures taken by government recognise the peculiar needs of persons with disabilities who are among the most vulnerable and susceptible group at this uncertain pandemic time. Therefore, the government’s response must be inclusive and the right balance must be achieved. Hence, the government should take necessary and reasonable steps to address the shortfalls in its response to the pandemic so far. For even if the government may fail in all other things, it must not fail to learn from the lessons of its response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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BIZIBRAINS OKPEH is a writer, a disability rights advovate and a legal practitioner. you can reach him on [email protected] or 07061096037.