‘In the face of COVID-19, all people should be equal’

Sightsavers, June 2020
Thomas Mtonga sitting at his laptop.

Thomas Mtonga is a lecturer at the University of Zambia. Here he shares his experience of challenges facing people with disabilities during COVID-19, and his recommendations for making sure no one is left behind in tackling the pandemic.

Since COVID-19 hit the world in late 2019, all people have been making efforts to find better means of protecting themselves against acquiring the disease. So many lives have already been lost due to the lethal behaviour of the virus.

Most of the time, people with disabilities are at the peripherals of information receiving and usually, they are considered at the very last minute for anything good in society. To illustrate this, look at the way information on the coronavirus has been communicated to the general populace. There are few organisations that have thought about taking time to share this information with individuals who are deaf, for example. This means people who are deaf are getting this information in bits and pieces, and sometimes the information they are receiving is not correct.

You can imagine, friends, at my level and with my education and vast experience as a blind person: my little son and daughter had to teach me how to put on my face mask. They noticed that every time I wore my face mask, I was putting it the wrong way round: closing my eyes and leaving some space near my mouth. I did this because I have not seen anyone wearing a face mask. Sighted people can watch others and learn without any special demonstration. My children had to teach me how to do it.

As an individual with a disability myself, I have noticed many inequalities occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to people with disabilities.

Leaving no one behind

COVID-19 is a deadly disease. In order to protect ourselves from it, all human beings must be informed and must participate in all precautionary measures. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, no one should remain behind when it comes to education, health issues and prosperity. Since people with disabilities are at the margins of society, they are usually the last individuals to receive information.

Disabilities are diverse. This means that people with different disabilities may experience this pandemic in different ways. For instance, a person with mild physical disabilities will experience different challenges than a person who is blind. A blind person may need a sighted guide to assist them. And, since the coronavirus is a contact disease, the person who is blind is more at risk of contracting the virus than a person who is physically disabled and perhaps does not need human support to move around.

There are specific challenges affecting people with disabilities during the pandemic. These include:

Lack of information for people with disabilities

As medical practitioners and governments are sensitising communities, they should remember that people who are blind and/or deaf may not  receive their information. Blind people will hear the message but may not know how to protect themselves – the speaker may need to ensure that it is physically demonstrated on the body of the blind person how to use (for example) a face mask, or how to follow social distancing guidelines. The best option that respects blind people is to train fellow blind individuals to share the information.

Deaf individuals can read the common information posted in newspapers. But many people with disabilities are extremely poor, and as a result, have limited access to most of the electronic and print materials available. Deliberate efforts must be made to engage them using sign language. A few deaf people can be trained in prevention measures so that they train others. If well handled, deaf people can communicate among themselves better.

Difficulty in social distancing

Implementing social distancing is very difficult for people with visual and hearing impairments or severe physical disabilities, as they may need support from other human beings in order to perform tasks. A blind person may need a sighted guide, a deaf individual may need a sign language interpreter and a wheelchair user may need someone to assist them with getting from one place to another. Because of the need for another person, the risk of contracting coronavirus is increased.

Barriers to education

I have observed that most institutions are advocating for online learning. You can be very sure that the majority of our blind and deaf learners are extremely excluded in the process. These learners may not have gadgets that can connect them to internet or software that can make information accessible to them. Unfortunately, when schools open, these learners or students will be far behind their peers. Some educators may wrongly blame the learners themselves for falling behind, and as a result some young people will drop out of the system as they’ll be considered unfit for education.

Lack of awareness among health workers

Since the Zambian health education curriculum does not include disability-related training, many health workers have no clear knowledge of how to handle and approach people with disabilities. As a result, when they meet a person with disability displaying symptoms of certain infections, they may ridicule or mock them. This has been very common in situations where a person with a disability is allegedly suffering a sexual-related condition. Pregnant women with disabilities also often experience ridicule from health workers.

Inequality and discrimination

The misconception that people with disabilities are less important is common among many people all over the world. Many people only realise that people with disabilities are as important as everyone else when they themselves become disabled. We need to remember, all of us, that we could become disabled at any time. Therefore, you should not just think about solutions for people with disabilities when you become one. Rather, work on solutions for people with disabilities before you get there.

Zambia has made progress in addressing the needs of people with disabilities – but we need to do more. In the face of COVID-19, all people should be equal.

I wish you all the best as we all fight this pandemic. But let us interrogate what we are doing. We should ask ourselves whether what we are doing takes care of everyone. And we should ask ourselves what we can do to mitigate the adverse effects suffered by people with disabilities, who have the right to enjoy life on an equal basis with others.

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Sightsavers logoThomas Mtonga
Thomas is a lecturer in the Special Education unit at the University of Zambia, and has worked with Sightsavers in Zambia as a disability advocate. Read more from Thomas on the situation for people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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