By Mercy Tochi Christopher
It is no more headline news that COVID-19 has upended lives around the world, creating disruptions in almost every aspect of the society and exacerbating existing pressures. For people living with a disability and orphaned children, however, the outbreak has multiplied the pre-existing challenges they face as vulnerable members of the society, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus and to the adverse impacts associated with the outbreak.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, persons living with a disability faced challenges to the enjoyment of a meaningful healthy, social and economic life as a result of the structural limitations such as access to healthcare, transportation, shelter and other basic necessities. It is estimated that there are over 25 million persons living with disability in Nigeria and a large number depend on charity for food, shelter and clothing.
According to the United Nations, 1 in 10 persons in Nigeria suffer from one type of disability or another. It is further reported that 9 out of every 10 persons living with a disability in Nigeria lives below the poverty line. With the current pandemic, health, social and economic systems have been overstretched, thereby making essential services highly limited especially for these vulnerable groups. In addition, the pandemic has also disproportionately impacted persons living with disability due to the environmental, structural, social, economic, institutional and attitudinal barriers that are reproduced in the COVID-19 response. This has, sadly, amplified the special needs of persons living with a disability, leaving them in dire need in terms of getting access to essential healthcare and social services.
Nigeria, in the recent past, has witnessed increased pressures on its healthcare which has led most healthcare facilities to prioritise the treatment of COVID-19 patients and implement measures to curb its spread. This triage unfortunately has an overwhelming impact on persons living with a disability. Apart from the structural barriers which make most healthcare facilities inaccessible to persons living with a disability, the volume of people in need of medical attention has intensified the healthcare challenges of those living with a disability by further restricting their access to healthcare. Those with pre-existing health conditions and who require regular medical check-ups may not have direct access to healthcare providers and may find themselves in serious health crisis. Others who are dependent on support from caregivers and benevolent members of the public for their daily living may find themselves isolated and unable to survive during a lockdown and even afterwards. There is also the issue of lack of proper enlightenment on COVID-19 prevention and treatment protocols particular to persons living with a disability. They are also exposed to the virus as a result of their need for care and support from caregivers and members of the public, who might be remiss in observing the COVID-19 safety protocols. Persons living with a disability are ordinarily stigmatised and marginalised, and with the social isolation birthed by the COVID-19 response, there is no telling how much psychological trauma they have to endure.
Precious, a blind student of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, in an interview with Mercy Christopher, project officer at Social Action confirmed that COVID-19 has magnified the challenges she has had to deal with as a result of her visual impairment. She noted that during the lockdown restrictions, she experienced intensified feelings of loneliness as a result of the physical distancing measures which was worsened by the power situation in Nigeria. She noted that she could not power her phone due to constant power outages and as a result, could not talk to her friends or fill her space with voices from movies. She lamented that as a person often in need of people’s support to move around, she has to be in close contact with people and most times hold the hands of her guides. She noted that this puts her in constant fear of contracting COVID-19 but her options are limited; thus, she is leaving everything to fate. In her words, “I just take it like a soldier and accept anything that comes after.” Precious also noted that she experiences more alienation now more than ever. She said that before the virus, people were always willing to help her access places she could not access on her own but now, she sometimes gets stranded as people who are trying to keep a safe distance in fear of COVID-19 are no longer so willing to help.
Mr Kie Obomanu, the chairman of Persons Living with a Disability in Rivers State also highlighted some of the difficulty that persons living with disability face over and above other members of the society. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatising period for persons living with a disability. According to him, 75% of persons living with a disability live on daily income and the movement restrictions associated with COVID-19 has rendered most of them unemployed and incapable of doing the menial jobs that sustained them on a daily basis. The implication of this is that a high percentage of persons living with a disability are now unemployed and totally dependent on charity to survive. Some are on the streets begging just to eke out a living since the social protection policy for persons living with a disability in Nigeria is still at its infancy and unable to cater for persons living with a disability.
Mr Kie Obomanu, the chairman of Persons Living with a Disability in Rivers State
The government of Rivers State has provided palliatives for persons living with a disability in Port Harcourt, according to Mr. Kie, but a lot more needs to be done. He suggests that palliatives should be provided on a monthly or bi-monthly basis to help persons living with a disability cope during the pandemic, and those in other parts of the state outside the capital should also be provided for since their disability makes the state capital inaccessible to them.
Besides persons living with a disability, orphaned children in institutionalised care are another vulnerable group enormously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the orphanages, especially those run by private individuals, are solely dependent on donations from the public to provide for the children in their care. With COVID-19 pandemic, a lot has changed for these orphanages. Chioma Nwankwo of Mercy and Praise Orphanage Home shared some of the challenges that children in orphanages face. She explained that before the pandemic, organisations, churches and individuals visit the orphanage bearing food and monetary donations to help with the care of the children. Some persons visit to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other festivities with the children, thereby giving the orphans a sense of family and making them feel loved. With the advent of COVID-19, these visits and donations have been drastically reduced and in some cases, completely stopped. Not only does this affect the quality of care the children receive, it also affects their social wellbeing as they miss out on the love they receive from visitors. She also observed that the disruptions with schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have raised a lot of concerns for the education of the children in their care. With schools closed, the orphanage has to engage the services of tutors to teach the children in order to keep their minds active. However, there are concerns that this might not be sustained if the donations they receive continue to dwindle and schools remain closed. Ms. Nwankwo also added that the children no longer eat as much as they are used to since the pandemic has crippled food donations from the public.
Being vulnerable or having a disability does not, by itself, increase a person’s chances of contracting COVID-19. However, the challenges of the outbreak are amplified for persons living with a disability, orphaned children and other vulnerable groups. Thankfully, the response and attitude of the government and the public can help cushion the suffering endured by orphaned children and persons living with a disability. The Nigerian government at all levels should take speedy steps to develop and implement social protection policies that will ensure the wellbeing of these vulnerable groups. The public should also take the responsibility of holding the government accountable to ensure that these social policies are implemented.
COVID-19 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 29 April 2020-07-28
Haruna Mohammed A. (2017). The Problems of Living with Disability in Nigeria Journal of Law, Policy and Globalization Vol.65, 103-113