By Syovata Shalon Kilonzo*
Persons with disabilities may be even more vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have also shown resiliency and wisdom that can be shared across the world.
From the time WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic in March, it observed that disabled people could be impacted more significantly. “Persons with disabilities are more exposed to the virus owing to the environments that they live in, lack of adequate information in accessible formats, or due to pre-existing health conditions which in turn makes them have a lower immunity,” said Anjeline Okola, programme coordinator, World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network.
During this time of COVID-19, persons with disabilities are more exposed to barriers which put them at a greater risk of contracting the disease. Some are unable to ensure basic hygiene such as hand washing due to their disability and are experiencing difficulty in enacting social distancing as they need support from other people. Others need to touch things to obtain information from the environment or for physical support. Most persons with disabilities have reported challenges to accessing public health information and health care as well as disruptions to the services they rely on which has left them more vulnerable.
Individual and collective responsibility
To manage the pandemic, experts, religious and political leaders have called for individual and collective responsibility. The importance of personal hygiene such as hand washing and enacting social distance has been underscored.
Depending on the type of disability and environment, persons with disabilities have charted their own ways to cope with COVID-19. “As a minister of the gospel who has a disability, I have reduced the hours of pastoral care services and only attending to those with serious issues as a way of protecting myself. Instead of working from the office, I am working from home,” said Rev. Chileshe Chepela, a person with disability and Mpongwe congregation parish minister, United Church of Zambia.
Rev. Chileshe Chepela. Photo: United Church of Zambia
Countries have closed their borders and are currently under partial or total lockdown in an attempt to stop COVID-19 from spreading. Civil society, faith-based organizations and other actors have stepped up awareness raising activities and support on preventive and management measures.
Churches have established new ways to offer accompaniment to persons with disabilities. The Holmlia Church in Oslo, Norway has been organizing home visits to its members which have been a source of encouragement and hope.
“During these visits, they sing and hold conversations with the members. Persons with disabilities who are members of the church and have been reached though the visits have reported feeling their hope restored through singing and dialogue,” explains Torril Edoy, regional coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network in Europe, who herself is based in Oslo.
Leave no one behind
The response of the church should not leave anyone behind. “Christians as followers of Christ are called upon to love one another as Christ loved us. We are called to share the right information about the virus with persons with disabilities as well as reach out to everyone in our communities and offer a gift of friendship during this period of the pandemic,” said Okola.
To support churches in offering a disability-inclusive response to COVID-19, the ACT Alliance developed “COVID-19 Disability Inclusive Response Guidelines.” The guidelines underscore the importance of identifying persons with disabilities in affected regions for easy reach and provision of accessible information through different formats (audio, visual, easy to read). Secondly, they are calling on churches to work with those providing medical services to ensure accessibility of health services, focal points and inclusion of persons with disabilities in distribution of medical equipment as they might be especially at risk due to medical conditions. Finally, the guidelines urge churches to include persons with disabilities as representatives in their emergency response initiatives.
*Syovata Shalon Kilonzo is a WCC communications officer based in Nairobi, Kenya.