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Inclusive Covid fight

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By Agnes Gogo Kambala:

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have huge impacts on almost everyone in Malawi, people with disabilities, especially children, are at a higher risk of long lasting impacts. Even before the pandemic, children with disabilities have always been among the most disadvantaged and prone to protection risks including violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.

It is, therefore, important for stakeholders to understand the challenges that children with disabilities are facing as a result of Covid so that they may put in place necessary measures of protecting them.

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Although there are no official statistics of people with disabilities who have tested positive or have succumbed to Covid in Malawi, the nature of the pandemic puts this vulnerable group at great disadvantage of contracting the virus as well as suffering from the effects of the pandemic even when not infected.

Most children with disabilities cannot easily observe measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus. Social distancing, for example, is particularly challenging or even impossible to be practiced by these children, as some of them, such as those with physical disabilities and visual impairments, need close and frequent contact with their caregivers.

These caregivers may also go in and out of their households in a bid to meet their families’ different needs. Thus, they will be exposing children with disabilities to Covid risks.

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Often times, children with disabilities from low-income households lack sufficient access to assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches and walking sticks. As such, they may need to touch surfaces or the ground to move about, hence requiring them to wash their hands with soap as frequently as possible to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

However, in most circumstances, hand washing facilities are physically inaccessible, which puts children at risk of catching the virus. Some might also be living in areas with frequent water shortages, further compounding their problems.

Some children with disabilities may not comprehend what is going on. They cannot understand the measures that need to be followed. With schools closed, some children with intellectual disabilities, for example, aimlessly walk around. This puts them at the risk of contracting the virus, or becoming carriers of the virus and many in turn infect their family.

For children with disabilities who have the ability to understand what is going on, lack of reliable and accessible public information on the spread and prevention of the disease is the key challenge.

There is little information on Covid provided through sign language interpretation, large print, graphics, videos and audios targeting children with disabilities.

Covid also poses a threat towards the general welfare of children with disabilities in Malawi. The closure of schools means that some children with disabilities no longer have protected environments as to most children, schools are safe havens from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

On the other hand, even if schools were to open tomorrow, children with disabilities would still face several challenges that would need immediate attention for them to function properly and safely amid the pandemic.

Apart from challenges associated with hand-washing and social distancing, it is difficult for children with disabilities to use face coverings in protecting themselves from the coronavirus.

Children with visual impairments who rely on lip reading would find it difficult to communicate with others when they wear face masks. While transparent face masks may be handy, they are not easily accessible and cannot be easily made using locally available resources.

All these challenges indicate the need for inclusive Covid-19 preparedness and response strategies.

Better and well-timed responses will help to quench the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children with disabilities in Malawi. Thus, even with a lot of money being pumped into fighting and managing the pandemic, there is need for deliberate efforts of directing those funds towards supporting children with disabilities, lest the inequalities perpetuated by Covid keep haunting us long after the virus is gone, if it will.

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