“We need information about COVID 19,” laments Martin Gondwe, the founder of the forum for people with disabilities in Nakonde, “Since the time of the outbreak, there has not been a single poster in the streets written in sign language. People are just moving up and down sensitizing the non-disabled people, thinking that they are the most at risk, forgetting that we are the most at risk.”
The trading city of Nakonde, in Zambia’s Northern Province bordering with Tanzania, has been one of the towns hardest hit by COVID 19 and just recently rebounded from a one-month lockdown. People with disabilities are particularly the most at risk during this outbreak as the majority of them have little or no knowledge about the virus or access to proper sanitation for their safety.
Over the past four months, the number of people infected with COVID 19 in Zambia has continued to rise. The Southern African country has recorded 128 deaths, 1,620 recoveries, and a cumulative number of 3,326 cases as of July 21st, 2020.
In clear examples, since the COVID 19 outbreak, there has been no alternative or inclusive method of sensitizing people with disabilities on the pandemic despite Nakonde being the current epicenter of the virus and having over 13,000 adults and 5,000 children living with disabilities.
“The deaf cannot be informed about the virus or what safety precautions to follow because there are no sensitization-specific programs related to COVID-19 on ZNBC addressed in sign language,” continues Martin, “How will they be taught how to stay safe during this pandemic?”
Nakonde is one of the poorest districts in Zambia, with over 80% of people living below the poverty line (earning less than $2 a day) despite the large amounts of revenue collected at its trading entry point. This statement means that more than half of the population do not own TVs, putting the community of people with disabilities in another fix.
Another grievance that the community of people with disabilities in Nakonde has is that they are not invited to influential and tactical COVID 19 meetings.
“As we are talking, there is a training going round Nakonde sensitizing locals about COVID 19, and no one from the community of people with disabilities was invited to attend it,” he grimaces, “We have no representation. We feel invisible.”
Martin elaborated further that the community feels the same sentiments it did when the HIV pandemic hit Zambia in the 1980s. Not only did they think that they were the last to know, but also that very little has changed in their community since that time.
“It’s high time we realize that disability matters have to be represented by people with disabilities who know how it feels to live with them,” says Martin.
Public transport for people with disabilities has proven to be another nightmare. People with disabilities rely on taxis and minibuses to move around the town. However, with the current pandemic, what was usually a stress-free process because of the help of fellow passengers has now become strenuous because nobody wants to ‘touch other people unnecessarily.’
“With the outbreak of COVID-19, people don’t want to touch a wheelchair or crutches. Even in the shops, I see fear in people’s eyes,” narrates Martin.
Sanitation and Health Services
Amid the pandemic, the government of Zambia has put in place compulsory measures to ensure the prioritization of sanitation in all social settings. Among these is the mandatory placement of a bucket of water and soap at the entrance of each shop. The government hopes to lessen the probability of Zambians infecting or being infected by one another. This measure is an excellent initiative- just not enough for people with disabilities.
“People on wheelchairs need assistance to move, and those whose vision is impaired need guidance to access this bucket of water and soap,” narrates Martin, “Initially, the shop owners would help, but now everyone fears they will be infected. It’s hard. Very hard.”
Martin and the community of people with disabilities are advocating to be given free hand sanitizers by the government out of the abundant donations it has received from stakeholders.
“We need free sanitizers and face masks- Most of us have face masks, but they aren’t easy to come by either,” he states.
COVID 19 continues to pose a significant financial strain on the community of people with disabilities in Nakonde in more ways than one. According to Martin Gondwe, able-bodied people in the town can make do with buying one bottle of hand sanitizer to see them through a significant period. In contrast, persons with disabilities have to buy twice as much to sanitize their wheelchairs and crutches as well.
When approached for a statement, the Zambian Ministry of Community Development Permanent Secretary, Pamela Kampamba, stated that the government came up with emergency social cash transfers from the donations of stakeholders to cater for the needs of vulnerable Zambians impacted by the COVID 19 Pandemic- including the community of people with disabilities. However, most of these donations were pledges and the government was waiting for them to be released.
“We are also waiting for the funds to come through in order to reach out to as many vulnerable communities as possible,” she stated, “This is an emergency and not something planned, therefore, we also have to get back to the different donors, present the Zambian case and wait patiently for them to release the funds.”
The Permanent Secretary gave an assurance that the government of Zambia was finalizing on the matter and would start disbursing the emergency social cash transfers soon.
Elsewhere in Switzerland, at the Policy Brief on Persons with Disabilities and COVID 19, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged governments to place people with disabilities at the center of COVID- 19 response and recovery efforts and to consult and engage them.
“People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, and they experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse,” he remarked, “They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities.”
Health workers in Zambia agree that people with disabilities are at an increased risk of getting infected with COVID 19, and therefore, ought to be prioritized. However, due to the limited resources in the country, they believe that people with disabilities may have to be treated like anybody else when seeking health services related to COVID 19.
“With regards to health services in government facilities, everybody is treated the same and given the same basic medical healthcare they need in that moment,” explains a medical doctor from Kabwe Central Hospital, “It’s a level playing field for everybody, both able-bodied and disabled.”
The source reiterates that it is an effective way to ensure that each person is catered for and included in the treatment scheme, given the limited resources currently available in government facilities countrywide.
Survival for people living with disabilities in Nakonde is economically challenging during this crisis as most of them are uneducated and rely solely on their small businesses to get by. With the recently lifted lockdown, those too, were forcibly closed.
Five kilometers away from Martin’s residence lives Mr. Tyson Simukoko, a carpenter living with disabilities, whose business was closed due to the lockdown. His small business, by which he earned $4 on ‘a good day,’ helped him put food on the table for his family of six. As more residents gave in to the temptation of leaving their rented residences in the town to live in the village because of economic hardship caused by the virus, Mr. Simukoko continued to soldier on.
“It is tough to remain in town during this pandemic,” explains Mr. Simukoko, “My family is pressuring me to leave the town and move back to the village.”
Mr. Simukoko fought hard to make something of himself by leaving the village he grew up in and moving to the town, given the odds that were against him economically. He began his carpentry after Martin connected him to a well-known carpenter in Nakonde called Mr. Mulenga four years ago. Since then, he has mastered it as his skill, sustained a steady flow of income to feed his family, settled in the town, and has not looked back ever since. Now, he worries that the village is pulling him back to a life of poverty that he strived so hard to leave behind.
“Every day my family asks me why we are still in town suffering with no money or food instead of going back to the village,” says Mr. Simukoko, “I am under so much pressure, so I am hoping we can recover from the effects of the recent lockdown because I don’t want to go back to the village.”
No choice but to live in the ‘new normal.’
COVID 19 is a significant setback for the community of people with disabilities. However, they understand that they must adapt to the new lifestyle it entails sooner than later.
“Despite the challenges people with disabilities are facing during the COVID- 19 crisis, we have to choose not to let our disability get in our way,” remarks Martin optimistically.
The community of people with disabilities in Nakonde have created its first COVID 19 District Disabilities Task Force spearheaded by a person with disabilities that is handling their concerns and raising resources that will procure face masks, sanitizers and other safety essentials.