Life in times of COVID-19 – Persons with disabilities
Yakubu Ahmad and Aisha Usman were oblivious to the public health emergency of great concern when the world was striving to stay safe in the thick of an ongoing pandemic. “It took weeks before I realised what was happening around me,” Ahmad, who is hearing-impaired, spoke with the aid of an interpreter.
Ahmad sensed something unusual only when he saw more people wearing facemasks and washing their hands. “Without adequate information and sensitisation, the deaf is at risk of contracting the virus,” he asserts with an insistent gesture.
It was when the Joint Association of Persons with Disabilities in collaboration with a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), the Life Helpers Initiative, organised an enlightenment programme in Sokoto that he learned of the ‘strange disease’. “That was when I realised that everyone gets to take specific measures to keep safe.”
The middle-aged man urges consideration for deaf persons. “We need interpreters at regular intervals to be abreast with any development on COVID-19.”
Similarly, 48-year-old Aisha with visual impairment did not initially get wind of this transmissible disease.
The housewife, who lives in a hard-to-reach part of Sabon Birni in Sokoto State, struggles to articulate her thought: “I did not get any information on the new virus at the beginning. So, it was business as usual for me.”
It was similar experiences for many in remote locations of the state who lament that several interventions only hold within metropolitan areas.
“For instance, during a recent distribution of food items, only those in the Sokoto South and Sokoto North out of the 23 local government areas benefitted,” a physically challenged Umm Halima, observes.
“Also, when an NGO provided face masks, and hand sanitizer, it was only our members from these two localities who got them.”
For individuals living with various forms of disabilities, a lack of consideration for their distinctive needs in response to the novel virus has been worrisome.
They lament the absence of specific social measures for persons with impairments and their families in Coronavirus measures.
For many of them in Sokoto that’s not the only issue. The stoppage of financial support, which coincides with the pandemic, represents another source of suffering.
Over the years, the Sokoto government gives financial support of six thousand, five hundred Naira (N6,500) per month to the indigent in the state.
However, since December last year, it has not been forthcoming. “Having to go without this monetary aid for the last ten months, aggravated our hardships,’ a Leper Hamisu Isah, 35 verbalises. “The lockdown was searing and challenging for us.”
Isah recounts his experience: “Before COVID-19, I was thriving with a modest income of N700-N1,000 daily from a small business of recharge card selling I conduct from the N6,500 stipend.”
But when the money stopped coming, the father of four had to turn to his savings. “I spent my savings and the capital in catering for my family of six. For Isah, his wife and four children, this meant cutting on food intake by two-thirds.”
The three-square meals I hitherto give my household have reduced to just one. Even this I do with considerable strain,” he divulges, giving a deep despairing sigh.
Mukhtar Sani is the Secretary Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), comprising blind, deaf, physically challenged, lepers, and individuals with spinal cord injury and of recent albinos in Sokoto.
He confirms that those who invested N6,500 in small-scale businesses had to close when their capital dwindled to near zero. The financial strains, Sani divulges, wrecked some homes of JONAPWD members. “The several months they went without the monthly support saw rampant problems of divorce among couples who depend on it for their survival in Goronyo area of Sokoto State.”
Suffice it to say that Sokoto State Government provided palliatives within this period of coronavirus. During the Ramadan Fasting period, items which comprised rice, millet, sugar, cooking oil, clothing materials, and N100,000 to each of the 23 local government chapters of JONAPWD in the state where Muslims are predominant.
At the EID-el-Adha Islamic festival, which also happened within the COVID-19 lockdown, each cluster of persons with disabilities received a cow. A few days ago, the State Zakat and Endowment Agency handed out foodstuffs such as sugar, rice, semolina, noodles, and spaghetti to groups in Sokoto.
JONAPWD got 15 per cent of this consignment with 250-300 members benefitting from just Sokoto North and Sokoto South out of the 23 local government areas of the state, the Secretary confirms. Most of those interviewed say the gestures did get to them, while others allege that politicisation dogged the disbursement. Apart from the economic effect, persons with disabilities in the State note that COVID-19 spawned adverse social impacts with heightened negative sentiments towards them.
“Coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the stigma stuck to leprosy,” Umm Fatima expresses.
“It was as though we were back in the days of intense leprosy scorn. COVID-19 encouraged physical distancing; but for us, it was an estrangement that left us disenchanted.”
Umaru Kasha Rana Chairman Lepers Association depicts the COVID-19 lockdown as a most arduous one.
“Many of our members and their families go to bed daily on an empty belly as the pandemic affected their sources of livelihood and created immense pains for them.”
He recalls that philanthropic deeds dropped with the prevailing circumstances. “It was a taxing time for us, and the delay disbursing our stipend inflamed our plight.”
Haruna Mohammed Helele, the chairman of Joint Association of People with Disabilities also points out: “Many of our members who are teachers, farmers and doing other works to earn a living, ended up redundant.”
“They fell back on their savings and exhausted it. Some have migrated to the western and eastern parts of the country in their struggle for survival.”
The chairman calls for urgent intervention to save persons their members from resorting to full-time begging. But why did the state government stop the N6500 lifeline at the material time?
Special Adviser on Disability Matters, Abdul-Azeez Ibrahim, explains: “We discovered anomalies in the payment system which we are trying to rectify.”
He gives a bit of cheering news. “Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal has allowed the release of one month’s allowance,” he declares.” From this, we will free the path for settlement of the outstanding nine months.”
Ibrahim adds that the governor instructed them to make another consignment of foodstuffs available to persons with disabilities to help cushion the effect of COVID-19 on them.
“We are expecting the delivery from the State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA,” he unveils.
“The items include millet, maize, and Guinea corn. We will make sure the prompt release of the grains.”
Rights Advocate Aisha Sani brings to the fore Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
It declares “parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in a situation of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”
She underscores the need for inclusive responses to the pandemic. “We should leave no one out,” she underscores.