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Opinion

Asia is neglecting disabled people during coronavirus outbreak

Governments must take extra efforts to inform and protect most vulnerable

| Indonesia
Students with disabilities in school in Lhokseumawe, pictured on Mar. 6: the early detection of COVID-19 exposure among the disabled has been difficult.   © Antara Foto/Reuters

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a senior lecturer at Universitas Islam Indonesia who has published on disability. Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian journalist focusing on socio-economic issues.

If the coronavirus outbreak is hard for everyone in Asia-Pacific, it is even more difficult for the 690 million people with physical or intellectual disabilities living there: they are less able to avoid catching COVID-19 than other people and more likely to die from it.

We have already seen how fast it can spread. In Japan, for example, there were 86 cases of coronavirus at a center for the intellectually disabled in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo. In South Korea, medical facilities have been unable to protect the disabled from infection.

Asian governments are increasing their efforts to deal with the spread of coronavirus, but in doing so they should not neglect the disabled -- and in fact must take extra care to inform and protect them.

While governments have deemed self-quarantine as the best way to keep one from the coronavirus, this is not an option for all disabled people as many of them cannot live independently and need assistance from others for their daily activities.

For example, residents of a home for the disabled in Central Java, Indonesia, still have assistance rotation where several individuals take care of them each day as the home cannot afford to hire one assistant for each individual. The home admits that such rotations pose the disabled a high risk of exposure to COVID-19.

A father and his disabled child during the nationwide lockdown in Dhaka, pictured on Apr. 2: many of the disabled need assistance from others for their daily activities.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

Many people with disabilities also have congenital diseases and preexisting conditions so that, if exposed, they are at a higher risk of becoming infected than other groups.

People with disabilities who experience symptoms do not necessarily understand what is happening to them or cannot explain the situation completely to their doctors or medical staff. The medical staff may not only have limited knowledge of dealing with COVID-19 but also dealing with disabled patients in general.

As a result, the early detection of COVID-19 exposure among the disabled has been very difficult.

This has been made worse because there is limited information on COVID-19 tailored for disabled individuals. There have been few efforts to make information available in Braille, for example, or to do hand-washing and mask-wearing training for disabled people with their own hands.

Dani, a disabled activist in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, told us that some disabled people require certain training to help them understand particular information. For the blind, for example, "we need to create simulations on how to wash hands properly."

People with hearing impairment or deafness also have specific needs, including for information in sign language. At the moment, information on COVID-19 that can be accessed by everyone is still hard to find.

Further, governments need to ensure that medical facilities for COVID-19 patients are disabled-friendly and that the medical personnel are trained in dealing with disabled patients.

Central government, local governments and related institutions must work together to enable health care access for the disabled during this pandemic.

Beyond health care, disability-specific policies are needed in social and economic matters. For example, COVID-19 has made governments close schools and carry out online classes, but these may not be accessible for the disabled. Families of students with disabilities must be able to accompany their learning needs and prepare supporting facilities at home.

Many disabled people are losing their jobs during the pandemic, which is another threat to their health.

An Indonesian government found that only 1.2% of employees in formal occupations such as civil servants or in private employment were disabled people. Thus they usually work in the informal sector, for example selling on the streets, which has been hit hard by COVID-19, especially with the lockdown.

Despite this, Eka Setiawan, chair of the Indonesian Blindness Association, or Pertuni, reports that the government has not included people with disabilities as recipients of social assistance needs during this lockdown.

Finally, governments must help the disabled whose families are infected with COVID-19. We need to ensure that a recent case in China, where a teenager with cerebral palsy died a week after his father and brother were placed in quarantine, does not happen again.

We cannot ignore that the disabled community has been neglected in our efforts to deal with the pandemic so far. The disabled, as everyone else, need genuine and serious efforts by the government and the community to save them from the crisis. If we continue to neglect them, the fight against COVID-19 for everyone becomes that much harder.

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