Disability and COVID-19 in Bangladesh: why urgent action is needed

Ayon Debnath, July 2020
A man who uses a wheelchair is assisted by another man to use a water tap to wash his hands.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has probably left no country on the planet untouched.

Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries of the world, announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in March 2020. Since then, the number of infections has increased exponentially. The COVID-19 impact is felt not only on the national economy but also on the household economy of millions of Bangladeshis.

The country has already started to witness its devastating impact. Hunger, malnutrition, and many other socio-economic problems that Bangladesh has been able to deal with successfully are now poised to intensify. Daily wage earners are badly hit; a large number of people have nothing to live on and are unable to buy food for their families. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has brought untold suffering for people with disabilities living in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is home to a huge number of people with disabilities – although unfortunately there is no specific data showing the exact number. The 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey showed that nearly 6.94 per cent of the population was made up of people with disabilities (more than 11 million people), but the World Health Organization estimates that it is likely to be closer to 15 per cent.

Whatever the number, one thing is quite evident: people with disabilities are some of the people most affected by COVID-19. They face multiple layers of deprivation during this period with shrinking economic activities and fear of hunger. Support provided by the government and others is not easily accessible.  The International Labor Organization  has reported that the risk in the response to the current crisis is that people with disabilities will be left behind once again. A report on ‘Covid-19 Impact on Vulnerable Groups: People with Disabilities’ by Innovision, a research based non-governmental organisation, shows that 74 per cent of people with disabilities in Bangladesh have lost all of their income sources. The report also says that people with disabilities are at risk of suffering from severe malnutrition as they are struggling to manage their daily meals.

Sightsavers is the Secretariat of the Bangladesh Disability Alliance on SDGs, a platform of 22 organisations working to promote disability rights in Bangladesh. Under the leadership of Sightsavers, the Alliance identified several factors placing people with disabilities at increased risk during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • A higher risk of serious illnesses and death from COVID-19, due to pre-existing health conditions associated with an individual’s disability.
  • Inaccessible information on COVID-19 preventive measures.
  • Dependence on others for daily living, making social distancing, quarantine, isolation and finding caregivers difficult. In the absence of regular caregivers, women with disabilities may be subjected to sexual abuse.
  • Poverty and work. A large number of people with disabilities in Bangladesh live below the extreme poverty line and many are unemployed. Due to the pandemic, many people with disabilities employed in income-generating work have lost work. It is also uncertain when and how people with disabilities can return to work under changing circumstances.
  • Distance education programmes introduced by the education ministry as an alternative to regular classroom-based education remain inaccessible for many children with disabilities with higher risk of dropouts.
  • The needs of women with disabilities may not be prioritised. There has been an increase in sexual and gender-based violence, disruption of reproductive health services, and deprivation of relief and essential services due to lack of mobility and movement. Women are still lagging behind economically and this is even more evident for women with disabilities.
  • Regular health services are disrupted for people with severe disabilities, especially women with disabilities, and people with long-term complications such as those with muscular dystrophy, neurodevelopmental disabilities, and people who are deafblind.

Sightsavers has identified a number of focus areas for influencing the government and donor agencies to take adequate measures, protecting people with disabilities from the short-term and long-term adverse impacts of COVID-19.

  • Represent people with disabilities at all levels in the COVID-19 response. Develop a policy and budget allocation in consultation with people with disabilities and their representative organisations.
  • Use sign language and accessible web content in all campaign activities/press conferences on COVID-19. Make websites of the ministry of health and family welfare, directorate general health services and the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research accessible, especially for deaf/blind people.
  • Include the needs of people with disabilities in trainingoutpatient department doctors and health professionals involved in the treatment of COVID-19. Maintain regular healthcare facilities under special arrangements for people with severe disabilities. Encourage accessible psychosocial care services for people with disabilities. Guarantee accessibility in institutional quarantines.
  • Provide special protection allowance for people with severe disabilities, their caregivers, women with disabilities and the families of children with disabilities who are at risk of dropping out of education.
  • Prioritise people with disabilities in relief and rehabilitation programmes from the government and NGOs, with mandatory submission of a separate list of beneficiaries with disabilities to the respective regulatory authority. Ensure specific and fair allocation for people with disabilities, considering higher risks, extra costs and income loss.
  • Disaggregate data by gender, age and disability for people affected by COVID-19 .
  • Prioritise women and girls with disabilities in any specific initiatives for women, including sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls with severe disabilities. Ensure adequate water, soap and menstrual supplies for all women, including women with disabilities.
  • Issue a government directive to the Association of Private Employers to prevent people with disabilities from losing jobs due to COVID-19. Provide loans to people with disabilities with low interest rates to resume their businesses.

The problems and unimaginable suffering of people with disabilities in Bangladesh will intensify further if mitigating measures are not taken immediately. We must come forward to make our policies and actions inclusive and help those in need. Otherwise, COVID-19 will leave people with disabilities behind once again.

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Sightsavers logo.Ayon Debnath
Ayon is Sightsavers’ advocacy and inclusion officer for the Inclusion Works employment programme, based in Bangladesh.

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