Covid response has to be disability-inclusive

Covid response has to be disability-inclusive

India has a robust network of Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs)

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15% of the global population experience some form of disability, and there is ample evidence to suggest that the prevalence of disability is higher in developing countries. Lack of data on persons with disabilities has resulted in their invisibility and exclusion from development policies and programmes of national and sub-national governments.

Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted people with disabilities as they are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus and to experience complications due to their socio-economic background and underlying health conditions. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that 46% of the world’s population above 50 years of age experience disabilities.

Lack of disaggregated data is one of the key barriers in inclusion of persons with disabilities in responses to Covid-19. It is vital that the government collects data that is disaggregated and also makes use of the data from civil society organisations that are working at the grassroots level in reaching out to people with disabilities. Persons with disabilities (PwDs) face physical, communication, attitudinal and financial barriers in accessing health services, which has further marginalised and excluded them from being recipients of the socio-economic response to the current pandemic.

Local governments have a critical role to play in the inclusion of persons with disabilities and to ensure they have access to services such as vaccination and medical treatment. Starting from the village administration to the district level, there is a need to sensitise officials about the need to accord priority to citizens with disabilities. Under Section 25 (c) of the Right to Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of India 2016, appropriate authorities must take measures to ensure that PwDs have priority in attendance and treatment, which includes access to Covid-19 vaccines.

India has a robust network of Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs). In line with the guidelines for ‘Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action’ developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee comprising experts from international organisations in 2019, it is of critical importance for the district administration to coordinate with OPDs during the times of crises to ensure that PwDs are not left behind. The OPDs, as representative bodies of PwDs, should be consulted and given an opportunity to participate in all coordination efforts of the local government response to the pandemic.

Monitoring inclusion of PwDs in the national and state socio-economic response to the pandemic will go a long way in ensuring they have equal access to health and other social protection services. The RPWD Act of India has created the office of the Chief Commissioner for Disabilities at the national level and state commissioners in each of the states to promote and protect the rights of PwDs guaranteed under the Act.

One of the key functions of the chief commissioner and state commissioners is to inquire suo motu, or otherwise, deprivation of rights of PwDs and safeguards available to them in respect of matters falling in the domain of the central or the state governments, as the case may be, and take up the matter with appropriate authorities for corrective action. Proactive role of the office of the chief commissioner and state commissioners for disabilities can ensure that PwDs are included in the response to the pandemic, such as risk communication and community engagement.

The national disability law also provides for the annual reports of the Chief Commissioner for Disabilities and state commissioners to be discussed in Parliament and the state legislatures, respectively, regarding the realisation of the rights of PwDs. Now is the time for civil society organisations and organisations of PwDs to advocate with the chief commissioner and state commissioner’s office to include information on the impact of Covid-19 on PwDs in their annual reports.

India is a State-Party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and, in accordance with Article 11 of the international convention, is obliged to take measures to ensure protection and safety of PwDs in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.

India’s role in formulation of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 is well recognised by the international community and Niti Aayog’s initiative in the development of SDG India Index-Baseline Report 2018 is all about measuring the implementation of SDGs. It is to be noted that SDGs will not be achieved unless they are disability-inclusive and uphold the 'leave no one behind' principle.

(The writer is a former UNDP Chief Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Lao PDR)