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John Chiti

'All eyes will be on the vaccine. We know we will not be given priority'

A man who has albinism wearing sunglasses and smiling.

Sightsavers’ Maria Fsadni spoke to John Chiti, a musician and activist who is president of the Albinism Foundation of Zambia, about the situation there for people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic as the global vaccine rollout starts to take place.

Maria Fsadni: So, where are you today? You mentioned you were traveling at the moment.

John Chiti: Yes, I’m in the Eastern part of Zambia, in a place called Chipata. I’ve come here for some meetings representing the Albinism Foundation of Zambia – we are following up a case here in Chipata. A person was killed here last year in a ritual attack [people with albinism are often abducted, attacked or murdered as their body parts are believed by many people to have magical properties]. Tomorrow we have got meetings with the police and the judiciary and other stakeholders as we are trying to follow up the case.

MF: Last year when spoke, you were raising awareness that people with albinism were living in fear of being attacked during the COVID-19 crisis.

JC: Yes, I must say that this year it’s even worse. The fear has increased and this is because Zambia will have elections in August 2021. These are general elections, there’ll be presidential elections. We might have a new government or we might have the existing government re-elected, but there is fear because whenever it is election time, people become desperate. There are some politicians who become so desperate that they want to involve juju [magic powers] in winning elections. They consult traditional healers and witch doctors, and they’re given things to do like, “Bring these parts of bodies [of people with albinism] for you to win elections.” From experience, the albinism community knows that when it is election time the attacks increase.

When someone wants to get rich, have political power, boost their business, or cure certain incurable diseases, they consult a witch doctor and are told to bring certain body parts. They may be told to bring two hands, two legs. They may be told to bring a heart. And people with albinism are targeted for these body parts. So people go on the hunt, hunting people with albinism, in search of the body parts. And when they attack a person with albinism, they’ll remove those body parts from that person because those are the parts that are needed for the medicine, for the rituals to happen so that they get what they want. This is why we are afraid in the albinism community, because we are targeted. They believe that our body parts have got special powers if they are mixed with rituals and magic.

MF: You’ve mentioned the belief that body parts may be used to cure diseases. How does this relate to COVID-19?

JC: Well, first of all, we received some concerns from our friends in Eastern parts of Africa. Some people’s albinism was being blamed for bringing COVID-19 because people with albinism look pale and they can easily be compared to being white. So people think, “Ah, these are the African whites we have, so these are the people who have brought COVID-19.” There is a belief that this is a disease for white people, not for Africans. So there is that conception and people tend to blame people with albinism for that. It’s a double punch for us – we are trying to survive the pandemic but we still have these other issues that we have to sort out.

MF: Do you think people with disabilities in Zambia will be able to access the vaccination programmes as a priority? What’s the status of vaccination planning at the moment?

JC: We have had announcements from our government that there’s a consignment of COVID-19 vaccines coming. But of course, our concern is that when it comes it’ll be an issue of priority, of deciding who gets the vaccine first. And when it comes to priorities, people with disabilities are always left out and that is our worry. We are always left out. We are not thought about first. We are not first in line because we have seen this happen with many, many services in our government and communities. We are strategising as organisations as to how are we going to advocate for accessibility of the vaccine to people with disabilities. We know for sure that we will not be given priority, because of the experiences that we have had in other cases.

MF: Do you think there are certain provisions that may be needed to ensure that people with disabilities can get access to the vaccinations as they are rolled out?

JC: Yes. We need to put infrastructural accessibility in place – most offices and most infrastructure, including government infrastructure, are not accessible. Even health clinics – most clinics don’t have sign language interpreters, so people who are deaf, for example, find it hard to access information when they visit any health centre. So when the vaccine comes, they will need to consider accessibility to people with disabilities. The place where the vaccines are happening from: is it accessible to a person using a wheelchair? What kind of a place and infrastructure will be used when vaccinating? And is the information going to be available in all accessible formats? For example, if a deaf person goes to have his or her vaccine, is there going to be someone who can interpret and communicate? What about blind people? How am I going to get the information? They’ll need to put out information and instructions – there is a lot of awareness-raising that needs to be done about the vaccine so that we build confidence in people that it is safe, because there’re a lot of speculation about that.

MF: How are people with disabilities and albinism in Zambia able to share their experiences and information? I remember once, you mentioning something called Rhythm TV.

JC: Oh, yes. First of all, COVID-19 has taught us to utilise the internet. We are being challenged to use digital things, technical things, online things. Meetings are being done online now. And we have seen that it’s a good opportunity because in the era where we are living, technology has advanced. So as an organisation, we took advantage of this to say, well, this is the time where everyone is online. Many people are in lockdown and they’re trying to cope through being online. So we have opened an online TV channel called Rhythm TV, and this is a platform that we are using to raise awareness on disability. Actually, it has been very well received because in our country, no organisation has done this before and our organisation has been very much commended for starting such a platform. It’s a channel – Rhythm TV is running on Facebook, on Instagram, on YouTube, and we are producing a lot of content on disability. For example, we’ve got music that is done by people with disabilities, music that promotes unity, music that promotes disability issues.

Our mission is to develop it into a national broadcasting station, but of course there are a lot of things we have to do. So we have started online but in a few years it will be running as a broadcasting station.

MF: What message do you think needs to be heard by global leaders right now?

I think right now the message is… we are still singing the same song of inclusion and participation, because we have not gotten as much attention – we’re still in a pandemic and most leaders are busy. Now, all eyes will be on the vaccine because it will seem like it’s a way out. Many countries, many leaders, will be focused on vaccines. And we are still singing the same song: inclusion, inclusion. People with disabilities must not be forgotten in this pandemic. After this, we’ll have the aftermath where it will be a time to recover. How are we going to recover from our businesses? Look at the impact of COVID-19. As we’re putting up measures, as we’re trying to survive the pandemic, we urge our leaders to be inclusive.