The second wave of COVID-19 continues to ravage the Indian population mercilessly. Throughout the country, the picture is largely that of distress – people helplessly running from pillar to post trying to arrange hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines for their loved ones, when not crying with their broken hearts as the bodies of their dear ones burn up on the pyre. Amidst this, India which had reportedly sent over 361 lakh doses of the anti-coronavirus vaccine to countries, is now struggling to ensure a smooth vaccination drive for its own population. The overall apathy and callousness of the government is evident as the country is evidently hit hard by the disastrous second wave and the only thing that could combat the problem — vaccines are sparse and increasingly becoming a thing for only the privileged to have access of. Not to mention, among the sections that have been hit hard by India’s mismanaged vaccination drive, centrally controlled by the ‘fastest-finger first’ policy and an extremely glitchy COWIN app, the disabled people have been at the receiving end.
Speaking from a personal vantage point, even as getting a hospital bed with oxygen facilities was becoming a challenge, we received a phone call from an anxious father. He said that even though he could get a bed in a government hospital in Kolkata, the authorities refused to admit his son because he has Down Syndrome. Hospital demanded specific papers from the health department of West Bengal – the hapless father had to wait for two more days to get his COVID-19 positive child requiring oxygen support admitted only because of his son’s intellectual disability.
By now, many of us have seen posts by the Child Rights Commission as to how can one help a child or ensure their safety in the case that they are orphaned due to the pandemic. As disability rights activists, we received similar yet a tad different kind of requests. We heard about a young adult (of at least 24 years of age) with disabilities who needed support in day-to-day life, losing her parents. Amidst the chaos and the central government’s absolute lack of management, the provision to ensure the safety of marginalised sections such as the disability sector has yet again, ceased to be of priority. Where is the provision to keep such disabled people? Even though they are not children biologically, they need meticulous support and care, especially in these dire times. Where will they go if their parents die or have to be urgently hospitalised due to COVID-19?
The vaccination process remains inaccessible for a majority of disabled people. On April 24, visually-impaired activist Ketan Kothari wrote a detailed post on Facebook on how he and his wife were harassed due to their disability. The websites and the apps made for COVID-19 support are not accessible for the visually impaired people. So, they have to take support of sighted persons to use these websites.
Persons with hearing impairments are also facing different problems. Since, most of the COVID-19 relief and support work are happening through helplines, they often cannot communicate and find the solution. Getting information is major barrier for them. The Kerala Government, however, has started a helpline in collaboration with the National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) where via WhatsApp video chat, people with hearing impairment can communicate with counsellors using sign language. However, such facilities are not present in other parts of the country.
Majority of the disabled people work in unorganised sectors. A 2015 report estimates that about 80 percent of people with disabilities live in poverty. Naturally, they would have been strapped off of the meagre income they’d make due to the partial lockdown or total lockdown which several major states started with when the threat of the second wave increased. The government, meanwhile, has not yet announced any relief for them though even daily expenses are higher for many of them. Reports also indicated how in many instances, the disability allowance, commonly known as disability pension, was not getting disbursed in time for many or not being released at all, due to COVID-19.
After the 2020 lockdown, when trains started running once again, all the trains were announced as “special trains”. As a result, the long distance trains stopped giving concessions to passengers under the senior citizens and persons with disability category.
Keeping these instances in mind, the National Platform for Rights of Disabled (NPRD) gave a online campaign call with the hashtag #DisabledLivesMatter. A large number of members of the NPRD wrote mails to the Prime Minister’s office asking for the below mentioned demands while also using actively mobilising on Facebook Lives and Twitter campaigns as part of their demonstration:
Doorstep Vaccination for All disabled & Caregivers
Provide Rs. 7500 per month as ex-gratia to all disabled during pandemic period
Provide Free Ration & Food Kits to All Disabled
Provide Jobs under MNREGA to All Disabled Who Demand
Legislate a New Urban Employment Guarantee Act
Establish Toll free accessible helplines for the disabled in all states
Establish Toll Free helplines in all states for Mental Health
Restore Concessions for the disabled in all long distance trains
Department of the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under Social Justice Ministry, Government of India brought out an office memorandum on April 26, 2021 stating that priority and preference to persons with disabilities in testing, treatment and vaccination of the coronavirus should be followed by the Health and Family Welfare Department. Unfortunately, it is an advisory and not a government notification. Instead, the government of India requested the health departments of state Governments to prioritise the same. In this back and forth, the disabled people on the ground are suffering.
One hopes the demands made by the NPRD will be taken seriously by Prime Minister’s Office. Otherwise, a gross neglect of one of the most marginalised groups in the society will be added to the many criticisms on the role of Indian Government’s handling of the second wave.
Featured image source: Onmanorama