The novel coronavirus has caused an economic and social avalanche nationwide. India has extended the lockdown until May 3. So far the pandemic has claimed more than 550 lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that persons with disabilities (PwDs) are at a greater risk from the virus. Social distancing is the need of the hour. However, it has greatly inconvenienced PwDs who are in a double bind when it comes to even implementing basic hygiene to keep the virus at bay. The social model of managing disabilities has gone haywire. The present crisis calls for a perfect balance between social distancing and social inclusion.
Since 15 per cent of the world's population lives with some form of disability, WHO has urged proactive steps, failing which discrimination against PwDs will escalate. Human rights activists have criticised the United Kingdom's new Coronavirus Act, which allegedly violates human rights.
However, emergency services in Spain were put into action to disinfect a special facility there for the physically disabled. Disability organisations in Italy have urged the government to issue a specific decree on disability issues. In Netherlands, attempts are being made to improve accessibility of crisis communication to this section of people. The Spanish National Council of persons with disabilities has released a public statement, calling for increased support. Sweden has called for the creation of ethical guidelines on prioritisation of PwD patients. The Czech National Disability Council has distributed protective equipment to carers and personal assistants of the disabled. The world has at last woken up to the issues and challenges faced by disabled. Nonetheless, what's about the department of empowerment of persons with disabilities in the ministry of social justice and empowerment in India?
India is a home to 21 million disabled people. It has given rise to a daunting challenge. The government machineries must factor in this population in reconfiguring itself and adjusting to the current crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has left everyone unnerved. To mitigate the crisis, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman declared a package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore for the poor, widows and PwDs. A PwD will get Rs 1,000 as a one-time payment in two instalments over the next three months.
However, there are several questions being raised as to how to ensure the safety of the disabled along with their access to basic amenities. Is preparedness up to the mark regarding disability-inclusive disaster management at time of a public health crisis of such magnitudes? Will a PwD with vision impairment and without any guidance be able to spot the location of shops, medical stores, hospitals, and so on if they need to self-isolate? Will a locomotor-disabled person have access to disability-friendly quarantine facilities with wheelchair-accessible washrooms? Are there any availability of trained professionals and caregivers in the time of quarantine?
There are reported cases that posit that the impact of the coronavirus crisis is felt by different categories of disabled people in different ways. PwDs also face additional risks and consequences. As of now, it is widely accepted that the disabled are more prone to contracting this virus and are living in anxiety. They are not conscious about taking prudent steps against infection. The threat of the virus also curtails their independence.
A slew of measures are warranted. Home delivery facilities for essential commodities can be maintained. In hospitals which are not equipped with tactile pavements, carpet tactilling can be arranged to lessen direct contact with others. Ensuring operational lifts for orthopaedic disability can ameliorate the situation for those in need of them. Disability-trained medical workers need to be deployed for testing, quarantine and treatment. Since PwDs are doubly marginalised, the government can think of an alternative mechanism to provide helplines, support staff and transport facilities to them. Public information required for this group should be in sign language, alongside proper captioning, text messages and relay services. The media should cover and report developments.
Social distancing should be practised without prejudice or ignorance. In the absence of adequate numbers of accessible public facilities and assisting technologies, India's disabled community requires human assistance. During the time of quarantine, support services, personal assistance, physical and communication accessibility have to be confirmed. Panic is neither warranted nor helpful. Let's conquer this pandemic with a customised social distancing, paying heed to this disadvantaged class.
Santosh Kumar Biswal, assistant professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, has done his PhD on media and disability in India.
Uttam Chakraborty is an assistant professor at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune.