Dec. 2020

Special Edition: Coronavirus4 min Coronavirus hinders people with disabilities to access essential spheres of life

Image of Poster with Arabic writing as well as a wheelchair symbol, braille, and sign language ©Firas Hamiye

In wars, times of crises, natural disasters and outbreak of pandemics and germs... the disabled, children, women and the elderly are considered to be at the highest risk of danger, harm, violence, neglect, discrimination and social stigmatization. Responding to this challenge requires effective plans that meet the requirements of all groups in general and the disabled in particular.Did the Government plans to address the impact of Coronavirus in Lebanon live up to the expectations and hopes?

“Lebanon’s Coronavirus response has overlooked people with disabilities, who have not been provided with health care and remote learning and other services on an equal basis with others”, The Human Rights Watch said. In a talk with the head of the “Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union” Sylvana Lakkis said that the Lebanese State has overlooked people with disabilities, who have not been provided with accessible information about the virus or consulted in preparing the government’s emergency response plans.
She also mentioned that Private initiatives and international organizations like UNICEF have produced some material about Covid-19 that is accessible for people with disabilities. Adding that the government’s television and social media information campaigns may not be accessible, and none target people with disabilities.

The Centre and the Periphery

The different geographical locations of the disabled play a pivotal role in aggravating the problem, especially with the centralisation of services in the capital, Beirut, while services are non-existent or meagre in the peripheral areas of Baalbek, Beqaa, the south, the north, areas close to the border line with Syria, and in remote villages where there are almost no services.
After Beirut blast, most services were transferred from the peripheral areas to the capital, Beirut, increasing thereby the isolation of the disabled and their deprivation of services which were provided by institutions, societies and non-governmental organizations. All these services were dedicated to rescue those affected and injured by the blast of the 4th of August in Beirut, creating a sort of discrepancy in distribution.

In Home Quarantine

15 per cent of those living on Lebanese territories are disabled, as per Sylvana Lakkis. Such people find difficulties getting out of their homes for shopping, getting provisions, securing medicine, or due to a dire need for medication or necessary treatments, especially when we know that police took to penalizing anyone violating governmental measures without taking into consideration the conditions of the disabled , which led to tightening the noose on them when trying to secure their needs and move from place to place driven by dire needs and necessities.
The disabled depend in securing their daily basic needs to a large extent on social services provided by local society and NGOs in Lebanon. Concerns about these services coming to a halt arose along with measures that required self-isolation and quarantining in Lebanon, thus making the disabled more exposed to anxiety, depression, distress, and frustration, while, at the same time, mental health, competent psycho-social support, and financial aid programmes are on the decline.

At work

Lebanon depends on foreign gifts, donations and grants, while the disabled depend on civil society aids and donations from various local and international societies and organizations working across various sectors such as securing medical supplies, medication, heating diesel, motor aids and other vital services.
A large percentage of the disabled work as daily paid labourers and have no permanent jobs and salaries paid at the end of each month. Unemployment percentages among the disabled, in addition, are very high, while those working are “daily-paid” workers, and others run their own small business and have no permanent jobs and salaries.
Prior to the disaster, the disabled were overlooked by the Lebanese state; they were, in fact, on the margin of the political and socio-economic scene. However, during the disaster - “don’t hold back” - a large percentage of the disabled suffer from blatant disregard with regard to jobs and equity in wages, salaries and social services.
But, what precisely are their jobs in Lebanon? A small roadside kiosk selling coffee known by the name of “express”, selling mobile top-up cards from their own homes or groceries; or else work as hired labourers in stores, and other daily, or manual work, and special occupations and crafts without any guarantees for permanent employment or compensations for living expenses. Needles to say that salaries are meagre and don’t even meet the minimum wage. This constitutes flagrant breaches of the Lebanese Labour Law that sets out and fixes the “minimum wage” and obligates private and state establishments to integrate them in the job market.
Labour Law fixes the minimum wage at 675 thousand Lebanese Pounds. This number is deemed a very low income in comparison with the high prices in Lebanon, not forgetting, of course, the increase in the Dollar exchange rate from ten months ago up till now; the fact that caused prices to shoot up by more than 70 percent. In 2000, Lebanon passed a law for including the disabled in all spheres; however, till today, twenty years after issuing the law 220/2000, no application decrees of this law have been issued; and it is yet to be put into force. According to statistics, 81% of the disabled were unemployed before the emergence of Covid-19.

Remote Learning!

Obstacles start from the failure to allocate specific programmes that suit various types of disabilities like the hard of hearing, the visually impaired and those with speech impairments, along with all the teaching aids that students require, experiential and participatory learning, down to combining learning with medical needs including physio and speech therapeutics (dyslexia, stuttering etc..) hearing therapy, engage therapeutics, sensory-motor therapeutics and other rehabilitation therapies.
Talking to Amer Makarem, director of “Youth Association of the Blind”, he remarked by saying: “online classes and lessons, especially images and videos, are often unavailable to the visually impaired children”. He added that the blind who use their hands to perform their daily chores suffer more than any other, thus increasing the transmission of the virus through touch as well as inability to abide by the social distancing rule. As for deaf students, he believes that remote learning is difficult and fraught with challenges; as the teacher needs special interpretation programmes; he also needs to use sign language with all the difficulties that it entails.
Lebanon is in financial crisis. This made the prices of electric equipment like mobile phones, laptops and Ipads spike. In my talk with Sonya al Khoury, the director of comprehensive learning unit at the Ministry of Education, she said: “the lack of electronic equipment, especially in large families where more than one child attends school, in addition to the poor infra-structure like weak power and internet services, pose challenges to the Ministry of Education, as the ministry doesn’t have the ability to solve all the problems of the Lebanese state”.

In Health

If children don’t live a normal life and perform their daily motor activities in a normal way, due to the disability they are suffering from, their immunity system will be weakened. They, unfortunately, do not practise physical and fun activities, the likes of swimming, sports, music and arts in general, that invigorate their blood circulation. This is reflected in mental health deterioration due to being deprived of their normal daily routine, and the state of isolation imposed by the outbreak of the epidemic. This also gave rise to the emergence of unhealthy behaviours like violence, anger and edginess because of the presence of the disabled children inside their homes between four walls and the limited space, plus the parents’ inability to compensate for the vital space the school provides.
Weak immunity system causes health problems to the disabled person depending on the degree and type of their disability. According to Sylvana Lakkis, the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union (LPHU) receives a huge number of calls from disabled people demanding necessary medicine and experiencing difficulties in finding respirators they are in need of. She also pointed out that “quarantine centres are not well-equipped for the disabled from an engineering perspective, in addition to hospitals that cannot provide special and distinctive service to the disabled person since he or she is more vulnerable. If the disabled person with Corona stayed home, he or she probably needs care from one or two caregivers in their family, which means passing on the infection to their family members”.
Goa Yazbek, 28, a disabled girl suffering from “short height”, shared with us her experience of contracting Corona, she said: “my immunity system is weak and I have got a small lung, which rendered me in need of taking extreme precautionary measures to the point of obsessiveness and fear. I, nevertheless, contracted the disease during my field work as a social worker”. She went on to say, “it was a very painful experience and I was about to lose my life because the virus was so severe”.

Between Corona and Starvation!

“My husband owns a coffee and tea vending machine “Express”, but the authorities forced him to shut it down and we, consequently, lost our source of income and means of expenditure, nay, the authorities issued a fine of 500 thousand Lebanese Pounds because my husband didn’t abide by the lockdown rules. However, we don’t have other options available, so what could we do, die from Corona or from starvation?” Zainab Wahhud, 30, who suffers from motor disability adds: “the situation is difficult especially that I’m a wife and a mother of a 1-year old kid; my husband, also, has a motor disability, which makes us, as a family, face tough challenges”.
It is worth mentioning, in this context, that Coronavirus is a real catastrophe in environments like the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps, where people live in close proximity and have no access to the very basics of services. The disabled refugees on the Lebanese territories face huge obstacles accessing basic services like shelter, water, sanitation, medical care and other crucial life services.
In light of hyperinflation, a very significant predicament related to paying rent for houses, shops or camps in the Syrian displaced camps emerged, putting thousands of disabled people and their families under pressure and giving rise to many problems with landlords. Several meetings were held in most governorates and counties, which included officials in charge, heads of municipalities and officials from devolved ministries. They decided to distribute supply aids or a payment of 400 thousand Lebanese Pounds, i.e circa 50 Dollars. However, the needs hugely exceed what is actually offered by the state. The services didn’t especially take into account families that include people with disabilities, and they excluded disabled persons from other nationalities.

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