Lack of consultation led to persons with disabilities being neglected in the COVID-19 response

Author: Maluta Mulibana
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

The South African Government, a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), neglected the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their COVID-19 disaster management response. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of South Africa announced a “lockdown” of the country with effect from the 27 March 2020.  According to the “lockdown” regulations, all persons must stay at home, unless they are essential services workers or they go out to access such essential services. Before then, several COVID-19 disaster management committees were established without the inclusion of the disability rights coordinating mechanisms.

While the UN CRPD provides for the consultation of persons with disabilities in its preamble and in article 33 on National Implementation and Monitoring, the government of South Africa neglected the inclusion of its national, provincial and local disability rights coordinating mechanisms, resulting in disability issues being neglected in the coronavirus disaster management response.

From the survey I conducted with Limpopo provincial government disability coordinating mechanism, district municipality forum of persons with disabilities, organisations of persons with disabilities and individuals with various disabilities including visual, physical, psychosocial, intellectual impairments and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well as their families, the following reasonable accommodation measures were neglected:

First, important health services that are specific for persons with disabilities, as per article 25 (b) of the CRPD, were not regarded as essential services.  Such services include sign language interpretation services, the provision of assistive devices or technologies, medication and equipment, personal assistance, informal care or support; rehabilitation services as well as therapies or development interventions.

During the first month of the “lockdown”, public transport to access essential services were available in the early hours of the morning and late hours of the afternoon.  This was quite frustrating for persons with autism spectrum disorder who can be disturbed by waiting for the late afternoon transport in case they cannot catch the early morning transport back home from such essential services.  Otherwise, their parents and care givers had to be in possession of their own vehicles or dig deep into their pockets to call metered taxis or cabs, which are quite expensive.

Some persons with disabilities in institutions have been sent home without support or follow up since some home carers do not have the expertise to stimulate and develop their members with disabilities. On the other hand, those remaining in institutions are not allowed to be visited by family members as protection against the spread of the virus.  Families are only allowed to make telephone calls to their institutionalised members with disabilities, which is not practicable for certain persons with specific disabilities. As the representative of Autism South Africa states: “I know a mom who has not seen her teenage son since the lockdown because the residential facility will not allow her to visit.  She can only phone. This is frustrating because her teenage son does not have a full functional speech. This really shows the lack of understanding because how are you expected to have a conversation when your child does not understand social communication?” Such institutions could have learned from Limpopo province whose institutions allow for a fifteen minutes one family member visit per day.

Again, sanitisers and protective measures are not easily available to community members.  Government only give such items to health and essential services workers.  As a result, non-profit organisations mobilise resources for community members, including persons with disabilities.  Furthermore, we do not have information about the plight of homeless persons with disabilities. It is possible that they do not have water, sanitisers and other essentials. Additionally, while food and basic supplies are given, communities complain that local councillors use corrupt means to beneficiate their relatives, fans and friends.

The manner in which the corona virus pandemic has progressed over the past months means that constant access to accurate information is important to ensure that people are armed with the relevant information to protect themselves. While information on the coronavirus is available on radio and television, it is not accessible in other formats such as braille for blind people and augmentative and alternative communication for persons with communication disabilities such as those with autism.

In other instances, since persons with invisible disabilities are not known and understood by community leaders and members, this often leads to unnecessary clashes with authorities.  For example, a mother of a child with a disability was arrested for purchasing napkins for her child.

The COVID-19 disaster did not only affect the health system, but it also affected the justice system as well.  While an independent complaints mechanism is available, there are no support measures for persons with disabilities, resulting in their rights being violated and unreported.

Again, the disaster management mechanism also affected persons with disabilities economically.  Those who are running unregistered informal businesses are compelled to shut down without compensation.  Accolades, however, go to the Department of Social Development for the early payment of disability and care dependency grants and for providing a top up fund of two hundred and fifty Rand per grantee.

Government’s COVID-19 disaster management mechanism could have been more inclusive to issues affecting persons with disabilities if the national, provincial and local disability rights coordinating offices were part of disaster management committees since these offices have capacity to consult organised formations of persons with various disabilities.

About the Author

Maluta Mulibana is a student at University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, studying for a Masters of Philosophy in Disability Rights in Africa (DRIA). His experiences include 14 years teaching experience, 14 years in the NGO field – 12 of which were spent in disability-related programmes and projects, 2 years in general human rights, and currently in the Limpopo Provincial Disability Rights Coordinating Mechanism since 2014.

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