“We must crawl where you spit and hold on to your hand for support”

“It’s a huge hurdle of additional suffering”, this is how Hamisa Zaja, a human rights activist for people with disabilities summarizes the presiding COVID-19 Pandemic. For her and those like her who have to go through life managing diverse types of physical disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious challenges for people with disabilities which cannot be ignored if the war against the pandemic is to be won.

Hamisa, a woman with a physical disability who hails from Kenya’s Coast province was amongst the first responders to the COVID-19 Pandemic  in February 2020 when the government made the official announcement about the existence of the disease public.

“When the announcement was made, my heart really sunk. I was hoping against all hope that at least this disease will not reach us because it would bring a set of new and heavy challenges especially for us with disabilities. But here we are and we have no choice but to try as much as possible to escape it”.

Trying as much as possible means different things to people living with disabilities. Hamisa is the director of the Coastal organization Coast Association of People with Disabilities (CAPWD). Her work spans over the Counties of  Mombasa, Kwale, Tana River, Kilifi, Lamu and Taita Taveta where she seeks out the most vulnerable of the vulnerable people with  disabilities.

At the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic, Hamisa alongside her community mobilisers bravely set-out to caution the people with disabilities about the impending dangers of the spread of the disease. “In our working mechanisms, we have tried as much as possible to map out the locations of our members also having in mind that most of them are hidden from society and are hardly available to socialize freely because of the stigma associated with disabilities. So, we knew we had to quickly caution them and give them as much information as possible about the disease before it gets out of hand”.

Information is one step but the reality of the situation of people with disabilities is totally different. As a first responder to the pandemic of COVID 19, Hamisa who is a respected woman leader in Coast province spells out challenges that may be over-looked even as the government fights the pandemic.

The realities are tougher for PWDs

There are basic realities that Hamisa is desperate to voice so that the interventions of COVID 19 can be inclusive and considerate for people with disabilities especially the women. “Look, when we keep saying people should wash their hands, the people with severe physical disabilities cannot even reach the taps where the water flows.  It is a struggle. If there are going to be taps then let them be within reach for all, including the people with disabilities”. She explains.

“Think of those who are visually or hearing impaired. How do they get to read or listen to the messages being repeated on caution against the spread of COVID19? Are the messages in braille so that those who cannot see can still read? Is there sign Language for those who cannot hear? How do we make it inclusive for them?”

These are some of the pressing issues that keeps Hamisa and her team awake at night. They are deeply conserved that those with disabilities will be left out.   She gives a very heart-breaking scenario that actually happened in Mombasa recently; There was this woman with a severe hearing and visual disability who has been living a rather neglected life. We support her from time to time. However, when the COVID19 messages started, no one cared to explain or educate her so she was not washing her hands nor was she wearing masks.  It is only when she became very sick, was rushed to hospital and was confirmed to have the virus that it became apparent that she was excluded from fully understanding what is going on about COVID19. My heart really breaks for this kind of exclusion”. This is a reality that Hamisa only knows too well throughout her life and her mission to be the voice and advocate for the rights and justice for people with disabilities. Often, she has had to raise her voice to draw attention to the special needs of people with disabilities so as to ensure they are not excluded.

Most importantly, Hamisa is keen to draw even more attention to the plight of women and girls with disabilities whom she says fall under the category of the severely at risk especially at this time of the COVID 19 pandemic. “The truth is the matter is that people with disabilities are already 100% at risk just by virtue of their existence. If the person crawls on the ground for mobility then it will mean she will crawl even over the spit or mucus that is littering the ground and hence be at serious risk.  One who is blind needs to be physically supported by someone else and this will mean holding someone’s hand so she can move – the same hand that we must keep washing, the sometimes we must practice social distancing. This means a person with disabilities just cannot practice social distancing because she needs close contacts to survive. It becomes even more serious in poverty-stricken areas where people with disabilities have very minimal or no help at all”. Says Hamisa.

It is always those with disabilities who suffer the most

In the past couple of weeks, Hamisa has been actively involved in distributing food aid, soap and water to many communities of people with disabilities in the Coast.  Through minimal support and a constant call for charity and donations, not a day passes without Hamisa stepping out to offer support to selected communities.  She is personally taking precaution to wear her masks, gloves and is sanitizing frequently. She is however sad that this kind of provision is very scanty to the peoplewith disabilities and yet they are so desperately in need.

In mid-February when the government of Kenya launched a curfew in selected towns including Mombasa, a major stampede at the main ferry port ensued. Many people were injured and commuters scrambled to beat the curfew deadline time.  Amongst those badly injured were people with disabilities. “It is always the people with disabilities who suffer the most. Amongst the multitudes of people pushing and shoving to get to the ferry, what chances do you have if you are on a wheelchair or on crutches? And in any case, our police are known for their brutality and lack of consideration even towards us with disabilities. It was extremely inconsiderate.  We at CAPWD have been struggling to raise funds to replace some broken crutches and wheelchairs that were broken during this stampede.  Not having these crucial moving aids means that the people with disabilities cannot move around to do their small businesses and earn a living. It means then that they cannot manage to survive and take care of their families”. 

More still needs to be done

Despite the hardships, Hamisa gets up every morning with a plan to reach at least more of the people with disabilities currently suffering in the ongoing curfew and lockdowns.  This means that through her interactions with networks, the county government, religious leaders, friends and family, Hamisa is constantly seeking support to compile food baskets that can be distributed from door to door of the people with disabilities.  She has so far made it a habit to reach out to the remotest of the places where her selected target is because she knows for a fact these are the ones who are usually forgotten at times of crisis.   In her outreach, she makes sure she carries with her a couple of facemasks, gloves and some sanitizers.

“It is not enough to only give water and food. We must include soap and perhaps sanitizers, masks and gloves specifically for people with disabilities.  It is not enough to just give them what they need, we must pause to educate them thoroughly about the ways to prevent infections because they hardly get that specific attention for them to fully understand.  It is also not enough to listen to them speak about their challenges, we must seek ways to see how the issues they raise can be addressed and solved so that they do not continue feeling like lesser human beings. Unless we inclusively focus on the needs of the people with disabilities during this COVID-19 pandemic then the battle against ending it will be counterproductive”.

Written by Mildred Ngesa, the Head of Communications at FEMNET.

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