India’s disabled community was shocked when the central government did not think of a priority Covid-19 vaccination scheme for them. The past two months have been devastating for Persons with Disabilities across the country. A senior from my college passed away a month after tweeting and pleading to the government to give her a vaccine due to her disability.
During the second wave of the pandemic, states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu were way ahead of others in handling patients. This was because of a targeted triage system connecting patients to medical aid and prioritising the most critical cases. Elsewhere, others were barely lucky.
Take Shishir Bhatnagar, 40, for example. He is a maritime consultant based in Noida. Due to a spinal cord injury, his chest muscles are weak, affecting his lungs and thus making him vulnerable to Covid-19. Fearing the worst, he had locked himself at home for the past year. And days before 1 May, the day vaccination opened for those under 45 in India. Shishir was down with fever, a sore throat and extreme weakness. He tested positive, but isolation was not feasible because he is dependent on others for his physiological needs. The next two weeks were crucial not only for him, but also for his attendant as well as septuagenarian parents whose house he had moved into. Apart from his regular needs, he needed manual help to cough and even use a pulse meter owing to his curly fingers. A catheter user with low immunity courtesy Covid means that even though he has recovered from the coronavirus, he’s now down with a urinary tract infection.
Mumbai-based Accessibility Consultant Nikhil Aggarwal (name changed) has cerebral palsy quadriplegia. He tested positive for Covid on 15 April. Over the next few days, things got worse with fever resulting in his temperature reaching 105 degrees. With doctors insisting on a CT scan and his whole family down with Covid, he had little choice but to book an ambulance. Seeing his desperation, the ambulance service charged him Rs 15,000.
A constant struggle
I was born with a locomotor disability called arthrogryposis because of which I am completely dependent on attendants for my basic needs such as getting out of bed, showering, dressing, etc.
Over the last year, many like me have lived under the constant fear of our building or housing society being declared a containment zone and our attendant not being allowed to enter home. The Covid-19 protocol mantra — “avoid touching surfaces” — is in direct contradiction to how those with visual disabilities function and navigate any public space.
Even during current times when lockdowns have eased, those with visual disabilities have preferred staying in because for them, going out means touching — and touching means an increased chance of getting the virus.
Many with intellectual disabilities refuse to wear masks where needed, adding to the distress faced by their caregivers. In a world overcrowded with news and information on the Covid-19 pandemic, the Deaf have felt left out, with hardly any government announcement translated into Indian Sign Language. Those with thalassemia have not managed to get regular blood transfusions. Others with chronic pain and other disabilities requiring regular physiotherapy and treatment have lost years of progress made on their bodies.
Don’t leave PwD behind
Vaccination for Persons with Disabilities, a marginalised group, needs a strategy. In Canadian cities, for example, accessibility task forces comprising disability experts have been set up and empowered to identify, target and vaccinate Persons with Disabilities with the option to home vaccinate where needed. In the United Arab Emirates, Persons with Disabilities can call a special helpline to book a home vaccination. In Latin America, Chile is in the middle of a huge vaccination exercise with each day reserved for a particular group. Persons with severe disabilities are vaccinated at home.
India got international recognition during the 2019 Lok Sabha election when poll workers travelled around 500 km over four days to set up an entire polling booth for just one voter in Malogam village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district. For a country of India’s size, it is commendable how census officials reach each household for the exercise every ten years. I do hope the central government shows the same energy in vaccinating Persons with Disabilities. We are in the middle of a war and, if needed, we must activate anganwadi workers, the Army and maybe even the Election Commission machinery to vaccinate Persons with Disabilities.
India has set itself an ambitious target of vaccinating its entire adult population by 31 December 2021. If current policies continue, I fear Persons with Disabilities will be left far behind. And that would not make for a Covid-mukt Bharat.
The author, a wheelchair user, is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, WheelsForLife (www.wheelsforlife.in). He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)