Disabled people’s Covid quandary

Patricia Kaliati

Coronavirus knows no boundaries but, as THOMAS KACHERE writes, it seems like public health officials have preferences on who to reach out to with coronavirus and Covid vaccination messages, resulting in people with hearing and visual impairments being left behind.

If Memory Julius, 38, had her way, she would have been long vaccinated for Covid by now.

However, a visual impairment stands in her way as, due to lack of user-friendly Covid messages on radio, television stations, newsletters, newspapers, magazines and other channels of communication, she has been forced to rely on information from people she interacts with everyday.


“And what they have told me is that Covid vaccines are meant to decimate the population of Africans in the world. I understand that there is, out there, a conspiracy to get rid of us. As far as I am concerned, I will not go for vaccination,” she says, resolutely.

Her position is not surprising considering that, since Malawi registered the first case of coronavirus on April 2 2020, misinformation has been the order of the day.

Just in April this year, National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust Programmes Manager Gray Kalindekafe bemoaned the proliferation of fake news around Covid issues, saying the trend had the potential to discourage people from getting jabbed.


“We advise community members to desist from relying on fake news sourced from social media platforms. We appeal to everyone to be relying on information from reliable sources such as civic educators like Nice, the conventional media such as radios, television and newspapers and the Ministry of Health,” he says.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is equally concerned that fake news could disenfranchise the world’s 1.3 billion people.

To this end, WHO officials and partners have been working hard to reduce social media-driven health myths.

While all Malawians have not been immune to fake news surrounding Covid, we have gathered that those most hard hit by fake news’ effects are people with disabilities, whose population stands at more than two million people in Malawi.

However, people like Julius, who stays in Bangwe Township, Blantyre, indicate that, due to the nature of disability as well as due to infodemics, they struggle to understand messages.

“We even fail to choose who to trust, which disrupts the achievement of our planned goals.

“To make matters worse, we have not been informally approached on Covid issues. This means most of us are left behind, be it in terms of having the right messages on Covid as well as understanding the importance of getting vaccinated for Covid,’’ she says.

The situation is not at all different with Christwell Lale, a visually impaired woman from Mondiwa Village in the area of Traditional Authority Machinjiri in Blantyre.

She says, although she can eavesdrop on people’s conversations, she needs the right information on the pandemic for him to get convinced enough to trek to a Covid centre for vaccination.

“I think persons with disability are taken for granted. Why is it that the authorities have been failing to reach out to us with information in accessible format? There is a need for information to be made available to us because we hear a lot of stories surrounding the pandemic,’’ she said.

Caring for Persons with Disabilities Projects Officer, Sungani Chitandale, concurs with Lale, saying, in the absence of official information in user-friendly format, people with disability have been forced to rely on half-baked information, some of which informed by myths.

“Information is power but, somehow, those charged with managing it seem to be treating people with disability as second class. There is a need for mindset change because many of us need assistance from other people, who are, sometimes, also feeding us with wrong information about the pandemic,” Chitandale says.

Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi acting Executive Director Symon Munde says nobody seems to care about persons with disability, when it comes to easing access to information on Covid.

“Just imagine; some persons with disability are relying on other people to access important information. How can they protect themselves if they cannot make their own independent decisions in good time? I think our government has not fully come out to address issues concerning persons with disability. This is why, up to now, the country is still using a very old Disability Act of 1971,” Munde says.

He says, in an ideal setup, people with disability would have been targeted during processes such as vaccine rollout, health information campaigns and vaccination.

“We must embrace the spirit of inclusivity, which will ensure that information is accessible to people with disability. Covid-related information should be provided in all accessible formats including captions, sign language, audio and plain language,” Munde says.

Visual Hearing Impairment Membership Association Programmes Coordinator Martha Momba says the advent of Covid has hit people with disability hard.

“One group negatively affected by the pandemic is that of the deaf community. And, then, we have persons with deaf-blindness, who are facing numerous challenges, including failure to access information.

“In reality, lack of information has been a big gap because deaf-blind individuals have not received enough information on the pandemic. To make matters worse, there has been a lot of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding the issue of Covid vaccination. In the end, it has been difficult for people with disability to make informed choices,’’ she says.

Momba advocates the creation of a Covid Strategic Plan considering that, from the look of things, coronavirus may be here for a long time.

This, too, is what Sight Savers, through its ‘Equal World Campaign’, has been advocating.

Sight Savers International Country Director Bright Chiwaula says it is vital that persons with disability are not left behind in the fight against Covid.

‘‘We are campaigning to ensure vaccination plans and pandemic recovery strategies involve them,” Chiwaula says.

Social Welfare Minister Patricia Kaliati says her ministry is reaching out to everybody, including persons with disability.

‘‘We don’t specify that this is a programme for such people for fear of being seen as discriminatory. So, we work hand in hand with Ministry of Health officials as they have vehicles that enable movement to localities across the country. Through this, people with disability are being reached with Covid information,” Kaliati says.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe says the ministry segregates Covid vaccine recipients using elements such as gender, age and whether one is a prisoner, refugee, social worker or health worker.

“We don’t include a data element on people with disabilities,’’ Chikumbe says.

WHO identifies people with disability as a priority group for vaccination.

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