Prioritise persons with disabilities in Covid-19 vaccination campaign

Covid-19 vaccination

A medic administers a Covid-19 vaccine at the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council's headquarters in Nairobi on March 31, 2021.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data from the 2019 census, a million Kenyans have some form of disability.
  • About two in five of PWDs reported lacking the necessary protective wear to keep safe from the virus.

Kenya is riding a vicious third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. It comes at a time when the choice between protecting lives and saving economies reeling from the harsh effects of lockdown and containment measures is even harder.

That presents a fierce urgency to vaccinate the population against the virus. The government has launched free vaccination countrywide. Data from the Ministry of Health as at April 6 shows 325, 592 Kenyans had received the first jab. But a special group could miss out: Persons with disabilities (PWDs).

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data from the 2019 census, a million Kenyans have some form of disability. The World Health Organization (WHO) disability prevalence rate pushes this figure close to six million. Disability, especially in developing nations like Kenya, is on the rise due to factors like lifestyle diseases and road accidents.

Last year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated: “While the Covid-19 pandemic threatens all members of society, persons with disabilities are disproportionately impacted due to attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that are reproduced in the Covid-19 response.”

A year later, the pandemic has exacerbated the worrying state of PWDs. A study by the Innovation to Inclusion (i2i) Project, under Leonard Cheshire, European Disability Forum and UKAid showed nine in 10 PWDs in Kenya have had their lives affected by the pandemic through factors such as reduced incomes, job losses and lack of movement.

About two in five of PWDs reported lacking the necessary protective wear to keep safe from the virus — a strong pointer to financial challenge in buying them — as 45 per cent reported disruptions to the crucial support needed to live safely and independently.

PWDs are at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus due to the nature of engagements with their environment.

Risks of contracting Covid-19

Picture a person with a physical disability being assisted by a personal aide to move their wheelchair, or getting carried atop a set of staircases because there is no ramp. Or one with a disability on their limbs and needs the help of other people to do some basic tasks for them.

When you frame these images in your mind, the risks of contracting Covid-19 get clearer and higher for PWDs compared to the non-disabled people. Social-distancing with their personal aides and caregivers is near-impossible.

Experts advise that one sneeze into a flexed elbow if they lack tissue or a handkerchief. Yet, in the absence of a mobility aid or in the case of visual impairment, the caregivers hold onto these elbows to place a PWD on a seat, bed or when boarding public transport. Limited financial support also limits access to sanitisers and face masks.

PWDs are disproportionately affected by poverty due to socioeconomic barriers to economic opportunities, hence low access to quality healthcare and nutrition. This sticks them at the bottom of the pyramid, bearing the brunt of economic shocks. Many also suffer from pre-existing health conditions, predisposing them to the severity of the virus.

The Constitution, at Article 27(4), bars direct or indirect discrimination against a person on any grounds, including disability. It also affirms, at Art. 43(2), every citizen’s right to the highest attainable standards of health. Such laws run the danger of being viewed as mere statements but are for dire times like now.

The government can partner with stakeholders in the disability sector to identify ways in which PWDs can be added on the vaccination priority list. This also precipitates the need to ensure that the campaign is carried out in modes that are reachable for PWDs, either through easily accessible health facilities or home-based. All players should also collaborate in awareness creation to debunk the myths surrounding vaccination.

Prioritising PWDs in this drive isn’t favouritism but a reminder of the developmental call of not leaving anyone behind and an extension of love and care beyond them to their caregivers, who risk their lives to serve them.

Mr Hassan is the executive director, National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD). [email protected].