Even in the normal circumstances, persons with disabilities require special attention. In a volatile situation like that of the COVID-19 pandemic, persons with disabilities (PwDs) need even more attention and care. It is important to know that they require equitable, accessible, affordable and quality healthcare even during the pandemic. Therefore, prioritising their vaccination first is the need of the hour. Unless we do this, it is natural that the PwDs will seem side-lined in the massive vaccination drive of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Akshay, from Odisha Vikalanga Manch says that, two years back, when there were elections, all arrangements were made to make voting booths accessible and ensure that PwDs come to the voting booths but unfortunately during the current vaccination drive those guidelines are ignored. Sometimes vaccinations take place on the second (or other) floors of buildings which renders PwDs especially the ones suffering with locomotor disability, totally helpless to avail the same. However, amidst all these, there are some good practices as well – In Gajapati, there was a door-to-door vaccination drive for the PwDs which can be replicated not only Odisha but all over the country.
For the underprivileged PwDs, registration for the vaccination is a common problem difficult. Not all of them have mobile phones or the ability to go for registration. So, unless this clause is waived off for vaccination, PwDs will remain out of the vaccination drive. Moreover, some of the families are also reluctant to take the disabled person, more so the girls and women with disabilities to healthcare centres to get their vaccination doses. The present focus is on vaccination at the PHC-CHC level which is not accessible to PwDs. Furthermore, intersectionality in PwDs (women, Dalit, tribal and PwD) also becomes a great hindrance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chandrakanti Biswal, 41 years, a resident of Basudevpur village, Bhadrak, Odisha is a polio survivor. She shared her grievous story of how her family faced devastating loss during the cyclone. Her family consists of six members that include her mother and father, her sister, her brother and sister-in-law. Her brother works in Bangalore and is the only bread earner in the family. The family was severely affected during Cyclone Yaas and did not receive any relief or support following the disaster. She says, “We faced a lot of problems during the cyclone. Our house was completely destroyed, and we did not get any form of help or relief from the government.” The family has been living in a desperate situation. Chandrakanti is yet to take vaccination because of her desperate situation and lack of accessibility and ability to register and go for vaccination.
In addition to this, there are other economic liabilities for persons with disabilities whose livelihood sources have dwindled making it impossible for them to live a life with dignity. Adding misery to lives, PwDs in many parts of Odisha and India have faced cyclone, floods and so on. One can very well imagine the double jeopardy – adding to the woes of PWDs. In the recent disasters, it is also been observed that except for initial evacuation, the government is not coming forward with specific relief measures.
Jiban Kumar Jena, a young boy of 16 years of age, is a victim to locomotor disability since his childhood. He belongs to the Sanakrushnapur village of Bhadrak district, Odisha which got affected in the recent Cyclone Yaas. He lives with his family of eight members comprising of his grandparents, his mother, two brothers, a sister and his father who is involved in brick masonry and is the only bread-earner of the family. Jiban says, “My father is a daily-wage labourer. Therefore, it remains quite uncertain about work every day. Ours is a big family, so it gets very challenging to meet every individual’s need with only one person earning.”
The cyclone has left many people fighting for survival with the COVID-19 virus rampaging the country. Many people living along the coast have lost their livelihoods because of Yaas. Even though many people were able to recover from the cyclone, others slid deeper into financial issues, asset loss, hunger, shelter and many other problems. With no jobs available due to the ongoing pandemic, the situation for several families has drastically worsened.
In Odisha, the government is endeavouring to make an action plan for PwDs for their vaccination. Sulochana Das, State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in Odisha, assured that the government has a proper database of the PwDs receiving pension support. This would also be required and used in the vaccination drive, that is to be taken up in a campaign mode, to ensure vaccination of all the people belonging to the PwD group. At present, the front-line workers are engaged in door-to-door surveys for the identification of the PwDs. This database will particularly be applied during the vaccination drive. The administration has been instructed to develop a master plan for vaccination of the PwD and share the same by 25th July 2021. This effort would also streamline the process of vaccination amongst the PwDs. There have been plannings and preparations in order to undertake a vaccination campaign drive in outreach areas which would be an effort to address the issue of vaccination of PwDs in those areas. She also assured that awareness-building efforts would be undertaken together as part of the process to ensure vaccination of all the PwDs.
What is required more:
Special provisions and mechanisms should be made to vaccinate differently-abled persons.
Availability of database with the local government of all the persons with disabilities, for tracking them and allotting one day to vaccinate, with a do-able target, will ensure that all of them get vaccinated soon.
Involvement of civil society for the targeted vaccination drive.
Ensuring that the vaccination centres are accessible by PwDs.
Awareness and proper information regarding vaccination is more important to address the vaccine hesitancy amongst the population.
Specialised health care service providers are needed at district health units, to treat the mentally retarded persons who are presently facing problems in their treatment.
Utilize the provision of utilising 5% of the budget of the GP level fund for the development of PwDs.
Access to entitlement programme of Government including MGNREGS.
Immediate direction to banks to open the accounts of PwDs so that they can access loan benefits and schemes of Odisha Livelihood Mission.
Immediate allotment of Antodaya card and release of ration and pension to all PwDs
Immediate Livelihood support to PwD households (Priority to households having PwD which faced or are facing natural disasters) to ensure a life with dignity and hope.
PwDs are invisible in all spheres of public life and hence vaccination is not an exception. But in this context when COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters have broken the backbone of the economy, their inclusion needs to be prioritised consciously to enable them to lead a life of dignity.
(Shri Debabrat Patra works as an Associate Director, Humanitarian Lead in ActionAid India and Ms. Evangelina Patro is a student in in XIM University, Bhubaneswar)