A virtual roundtable on ‘Disabled persons and emergency assistance: COVID-19 perspective,’ organised by Light for the World, ADD International, CBM International and Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) and Prothom Alo, was held on 21 December 2020. The event was supported by Inclusive Futures, UK Aid. The deliberations of the discussants have been published in brief in this supplement.
Rashed Khan Menon, MP, Chairperson, Standing Committee on Ministry of Social Welfare
AHM Noman Khan, Executive Director, Centre for Disability in Development (CDD)
Shafiqul Islam, Country Director, ADD International
Murali Padmanabhan, Disability Inclusion Advisor, Light for the World
Muhammad Mushfiqul Wara, Country Director, CBM International
Asaduzzaman Chowdhury Russel, President, Rajanigandha Protibandhi Unnayan Sangstha, Rajshahi
Iti Akhter, DPO leader, Faridpur
Arafat Sultana Lata, sign language interpreter
Asim Dio, Advocacy and Communication Manager, CBM International
Nusrat Irene, National Disability Inclusion Officer, Light for the World
Abdul Quayum, Associate Editor, Prothom Alo
Firoz Choudhury, Assistant Editor, Prothom Alo
Abdul Quayum: People have been facing all sorts of problems during the Covid outbreak and it has been even worse for those with disabilities. Today’s discussion will look into what special initiatives can be taken to provide them with emergency assistance.
Before the outbreak of Covid, people with disabilities would be provided with assistance. However, this assistance must be increased during coronavirus times. They are not being able to receive medical attention. They are not receiving the financial assistance that they would get before. Today’s discussion will deliberate on the problems and challenges in this connection, and what assistance can be provided to disabled persons during the pandemic.
AHM Noman Khan: As it is, during normal times people with disabilities face all sorts of problems. They fall behind. Globally too, disabled persons lag behind others.
It is the same in our country. All countries, even developed ones, are facing the negative impact of Covid. The persons who have to depend on their families and the community, are now isolated. What is to be done? They are among the people at the highest risk. One-tenth of the people in Bangladesh have some sort of disability or the other. They face immense suffering during the prevalence of coronavirus.
There is no comprehensive records of how many disabled persons have suffered from coronavirus so far in the country and how many have died. We do not have the statistics and this is a serious shortcoming.
Health and rehabilitation services are means of survival. In normal times disabled people do not get adequate healthcare and during the coronavirus times, they are at great risk. Stress must be placed on their rehabilitation. There are many disabled persons who depend on therapy. Some have to have therapy every day or every week. Many have not been having therapy for 10 months now.
Covid has not only pitched us into misfortune and suffering, it has also brought forward many discoveries. Disabled people would have to come to the therapy centres for their therapy before. They cannot do so now. It is now possible to provide this therapy at home because there are many care centres of the National Disabled Development Foundation under the social welfare ministry.
People would visit the centres before. Now visits must be made from the centres to the homes of the disabled since they are unable to go to the centres. These skills must be shared online with the guardians and carers of the disabled persons because the disabled need care, therapy and counseling.
Education is a sector hit hardest. All over the country schools and colleges are closed. It has taken years to get disabled persons to start turning towards education. But they are dropping out altogether during the coronavirus pandemic. Those without disabilities will manage some way or the other to make up for the studies they have missed during the past 10 months. However, for the disabled, there is the fear of dropping out if they fall back by a year. Disabled persons should be given priority consideration for the vaccines.
Asaduzzaman Chowdhury Russel: The government provided disabled persons with relief as much as possible at the upazila and union level. However, that was not sufficient. The disabled persons had accessibility problems in collecting the relief. There are huge crowds where the relief is provided and this is a problem for the disabled. If they have to face these problems again, then perhaps the disabled will be deprived of this assistance. The government is very sincere in its efforts, but the disabled who have been left out would be benefited if the relief could be delivered to their homes through the people’s representatives at a local level.
It is somewhat easier for the disabled persons who are part of organisations for the disabled to receive relief. But many people outside of our organisation had no idea where to go to get relief assistance.
There have been problems for those who undergo therapy. It would be good if arrangements are made to provide the therapy at the homes of the disabled persons.
Murali Padmanabhan: The over 30-year-old organisation Light for the World had been working for the development and eye care of the disabled. We work in almost all the continents. We have reached innumerable disabled persons and their families for their development and in emergency circumstances.
We basically focus on inclusive education, health, and economic empowerment of persons with disabilities. We actively provide assistance in any sort of humanitarian crisis according to the emergency circumstances. We try to reach everyone, particularly those with disabilities. We want a world where everyone is included, no one is left behind. That is why we place much emphasis on the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 agenda. We also work closely with all national laws. We assist in high level political forums and various annual events.
We work directly with education assistance and livelihood in coordination with UK Aid and other technical partners of Bangladesh. We also want to work with policymakers so that the disabled do not fall back under any emergency circumstances. Their accessibility to social safety net programmes must be ensured. They have not been impacted just because of socioeconomic reasons, but also because of their disabilities. We also try to bring in mainstream organisations which work at a community level.
We view the problems of disabled persons from three different angles. Firstly, they meet with various obstacles in society. They cannot avail regular care and that has increased during Covid. Secondly, there are the new obstacles created by Covid. The impact is even worse for disabled persons. Thirdly, certain new opportunities have been created during coronavirus times, such as online education. There are opportunities for digital knowledge, for online education. We have to go far to make sure these reach everyone. That is why we are trying to work at the grassroots. We have connected with various stakeholders at a district, upazila and union level.
All activities must be made inclusive in future. Light for the World is committed to this.
Asim Dio: A significant part our country’s population is disabled. There are various figures concerning the number of persons with disabilities in our country. For example, according to ‘Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016,’ the number of disabled persons in the country is around 6.94 per cent of the population. Then again, the social welfare department puts the number of disabled persons in Bangladesh at 2,161,281.
The government had enacted various laws and ratified various international conventions in order to ensure the rights of the disabled and include them in all mainstream development activities. This includes the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013 enacted by the Bangladesh government.
Bangladesh has also been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread all over the world. According to a report of the Need Assessment World Group (NAWG) and Innovation, people of all walks of life and professions, including persons with disabilities, are faced with physical, mental and financial suffering. As in all other calamities, women, children and persons with disabilities are at most risk.
Around 83 per cent of the people are suffering from mental pressure as an adverse effect of COVID-19. Everyone is alarmed at the lack of adequate information and awareness. And due to the lockdown and restrictions of movement, around 69 per cent of the disabled men and 79 per cent of the disabled women are without employment.
Also, according to the estimates of the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), around 40 per cent of the people have fallen below the poverty line due to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As always, the government has stood beside the affected people with emergency services and assistance, in keeping with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013. Various NGOs have also been working tirelessly for the assistance of persons with disabilities. These include Light for the World, ADD International Bangladesh, CBM International and Centre for Disability in Development (CDD).
The objective of this presentation is to share the experiences, obstacles and lessons from the various programmes taken up to tackle COVID-19. Like many other organisations, alongside the government we have taken up various strategic positions and programmes to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisations, along with their partner agencies and disabled persons’ organisations (DPO), provide disabled persons with food and cash assistance.
Various protective equipment has been provided in the respective work areas. With schools closed due to the pandemic, the education of disabled children is at risk. Many disabled people have lost their livelihood. In order to ensure the continuity of education for disabled children and livelihood of the disabled, 117 persons have been given education and livelihood assistance. Integrated initiatives are vital during the pandemic and so several programmes are being conducted.
Nusrat Irene: Light for the World, ADD International Bangladesh and CDD, with financial assistance from UK Aid, are implementing an emergency project for six months to provide assistance to persons with disabilities during the prevalence of Covid. The main objective is to increase health awareness among the disabled, include them in various services and support, provide them with financial aid, education and livelihood assistance.
Several advocacy meetings were held under this project at a district, upazila and union level in Rajshahi and Faridpur with the help of local DPOs. Local government representatives, government officials, NGOs, representatives of civil society and DPO members took part in these meetings. During discussions, various recommendations were made about the easiest ways to provide disabled persons with emergency services and assistance. Various obstacles in this regard were also highlighted.
A major obstacle is that there is no updated information on disabled persons with the local government. Updated information makes it easier to distribute relief. During the countrywide lockdown, commute posed as a major obstacle to persons with serious disabilities. That is why they were unable to go far from their homes to avail services and assistance. At the same time, there was an acute shortage of staff at the union parishads and so they could not deliver the services to the disabled persons’ doorsteps. That is why a large number of persons with serious and extreme disabilities was left out of the services.
Local government representatives, officials and representatives of civil society made many commitments at the meetings. Holistic planning in advance is required to ensure the inclusion of disabled persons on any sort of services and assistance programme. In order to take up necessary programmes for the disabled, there must be updated information on persons with disabilities from the local level up to the central level of government.
Alongside emergency relief, it is also imperative to include disabled persons in long-term post-disaster assistance. Other than emergency relief, the persons with disabilities also require medical services and a free supply of medicines. Necessary measures must be taken to ensure the inclusion of disabled people in COVID-19 tests and treatment.
Mental health care must be given priority. It is urgent that the prevailing infrastructure for mental healthcare in the country be rendered inclusive for persons with disabilities.
Muhammad Mushfiqul Wara: Certain specific measures need to be adopted in order to ensure inclusive development for the disabled persons during the Covid pandemic and in post-Covid times. The government has taken important measures in this regard.
It is extremely important for a joint initiative to be taken up in coordination with the civil society so that the persons with disabilities can avail the benefits of the policies and the implementation of the policies. It is imperative that the development organisations operating at a national and international level work together with the government. For this, it is necessary to specify three factors in short, mid and long term plans – the demands, needs and rights of the disabled.
‘Build Back Better’ will help in the post-Covid activities of the local government aimed at addressing the special needs of the persons with disabilities. This required an increased in inter-ministerial coordination. Then the participation of disabled persons in the government’s overall management and programmes regarding Covid can be ensured.
There are many federations of persons with disabilities. If all the federations cooperate with each other, then with the involvement of the local government and people at the grassroots, it will be possible to identify the persons with disabilities and specify what sort of assistance they need.
The government has taken various measures for persons with disabilities. It is important to determine the needs of the disabled and how far services have reached them. The development organisations and research institutions here must also work together. It is with the participation of persons with disabilities that the varied needs of the disabled can be addressed.
The disabilities of disabled persons are varied. Their requirements are different too. That is why it is extremely important to understand their needs, to include this in policy and to make the necessary allocations and ensure proper supervision. Accessibility for the disabled must be ensured at all the help centres to ensure that they are included in tests, treatment and vaccines.
Persons with disabilities are being deprived of services because of the lack of understanding sign language, not having physical and occupational therapists and not understanding the needs of the disabled. In some cases, though, services have been ensured for them.
Alongside giving priority to the disabled in receiving healthcare and vaccine, there must be adequate allocations for disabled persons in various programmes. In this manner, inclusive development for persons with disabilities can be ensured by means of further cooperation between the development organisations and the government.
If we take Covid positively, we can go ahead with inclusive development. Covid has certainly created a risk for us. But we have learnt a lot from it too. What is most important now is coordinated efforts to overcome the adverse effects of Covid. There are persons with disabilities in the transgender community too. We must ensure that our services and plans include everyone. This will take us ahead in inclusive development.
Iti Akhter: We have often had to face problems when visiting the upazilas during the Covid pandemic. For the first three months, we couldn’t leave home. Then when we ventured out again, we found that many officials weren’t there. The persons whom we needed to speak to, were not there.
In many instances, persons without disabilities are given the opportunity to speak. We were not given that opportunity. Only when we challenge and say that we want to speak, then are we given the opportunity to speak. There is no wheelchair accessibility in our upazila. So disabled persons in wheelchairs cannot go there.
COVID-19 has hit us financially. We do not want anyone to help us with 200, 500 or 1000 taka. We want to have a source of income generation so we can earn our own living and support our families. We do not want our families to take us as a burden. If the disabled member of a family can earn, then the family does not see that member as a burden.
Shafiqul Islam: We have always heard the persons with disabilities have a lot of problems. We have tried at a government and non-government level to resolve these problems, but it can’t be said for sure that everything has been resolved. There were many short-term initiatives to stand by the disabled. When the country went into full lockdown, the government had several primary relief assistance interventions.
Later, many persons with disabilities were included in the prime minister’s economic stimulus package for disabled persons. There was a dilemma over whether persons who were already getting disabled allowances, would be included in the stimulus package. But later the government cleared this to a great extent and many were included in the stimulus package.
Accessibility is a common problem for persons with disabilities to avail assistance. It is not that this is more during the Covid times, but it has become more exposed during the pandemic. Since they have to go from one place to another to collect relief or avail any sort of services, or have to contact various offices, alternative means can be given consideration.
Steps can be taken to deliver the services to the homes or at least nearby to the persons with severe disabilities. Our experience shows that the union parishads have played a significant role in this regard in many areas. The union parishads have made special arrangements to deliver the services to the homes of the disabled by means of the local volunteers.
We are now facing the second or third wave of Covid and the number of cases is on a rise. There are deaths too. We do not know for sure how far people are aware of this, whether they are going to the nearest testing centres if they notice any symptoms of Covid. Persons with disabilities are facing serious obstacles in this regard. It is necessary through concerted efforts, to collect the samples from the disabled and to monitor them. They must be made aware about the rising rates of Covid cases.
Assistance must rapidly reach the disabled if anyone contracts Covid. The health department and others concerned are giving due thought to ways and means of to take services to these people.
We are not sure when the Covid pandemic will come to an end. What conditions will the day labourers, low income people and persons with disabilities face after the pandemic? That is why long-term rehabilitation and support must be planned from now. Bangladesh has a national action plan for the implementation of the disabled persons rights and protection act. This needs to be analysed in light of the Covid situation.
Rashed Khan Menon, MP: Much has been done to tackle the COVID-19 situation, but there remains questions as to how much has been done for the persons with disabilities. In the beginning, the government provided relief for marginalised persons. But I saw that disabled persons were not receiving the relief.
As there were no directives to give priority to disabled persons in relief distribution, this escaped the notice of the persons distributing relief. The initiatives of the government and various development organisations have been successful. But basically the National Disabled Development Foundation and the NDD Trust need to work in this regard.
A certain amount could be done for those with physical and sight disabilities. But it has been a serious problem for autistic persons. The organisations providing care to the autistic children, have not been able to continue with their programmes. There is a gaping deficiency here.
There is debate over the number of persons with disabilities. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic and WHO, 10 per cent of the people have disabilities. According to the social welfare department, only 2 per cent have disabilities. The government has provided many stimulus packages. It is necessary to determine the number of disabled when providing stimulus for persons with disabilities.
There needs to be statistics concerning persons with disabilities in accordance to their disabilities. There is need for special stimulus packages for the disabled. If specific recommendations are made at this discussion, I can place this at the meeting of the standing committee for social welfare.
Covid is not ending now. Even after the vaccine, we must continue wearing masks and maintaining social distance. A priority list has been prepared for those to receive vaccines. Alongside the elderly, it is necessary to include persons with disabilities on this list. This is not a large number. According to our Sustainable Development Goals, ‘nobody is to be left behind.’ This included poor people as well as the disabled. This needs to be given attention.
I have told the Disabled Foundation that that must take a lead role in this matter as they have ample care and support centres for the disabled. These centres are not very active.
There are many vehicles which provide therapy in various districts. These vehicles now go down to the upazila level. They must now go down to the unions. It must be ensured that the disabled persons there receive treatment.
Firoz Choudhury: COVID-19 is a special circumstance. This special circumstance is being taken into consideration in all areas. And separate attention must be paid in these circumstances to persons with disabilities and persons with special abilities.
On behalf of Prothom Alo, thanks and gratitude to all those participating in this discussion.