COVID-19 challenges for people with disabilities in Zambia
Thomas Mtonga is a lecturer in the Special Education unit at the University of Zambia, and has worked with Sightsavers in Zambia as a disability advocate.
Thomas is blind, lives with his wife, three children and seven other dependents (nieces and nephews), and is the main breadwinner in the family. Understandably, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he’s under pressure to earn an income and support everyone. But his work as a research consultant and trainer has been affected by not being able to run training or talk to a lot of people, and this has had an impact on his income.
Thomas also finds that the opportunities that would usually be created by interacting with a lot of people are now not occurring, and that relationships with colleagues, that are important for academic growth, have been affected too. All of this has an impact on his career development.
He realises this is true for many people: “Of course,” he says, “I know that one affects everyone. Except that, for people with disabilities, it’s a great opportunity to be able to do some of those things, because that’s the only way we can prove that we are able to perform like everybody else.
But the negative outcomes are potentially threatening far more than just Thomas’s career.
“As a blind person,” he says, “sometimes you find that you are walking around, you don’t know that the person you are talking to has a face mask, or has no face mask, and that could be quite dangerous. So, you find that you really compel yourself to remain in the house, because you are afraid that you may be the next target by this animal called the corona.”
Thomas talked us through some of the challenges facing people with disabilities in Zambia during the COVID-19 pandemic, including information accessibility, health care provision, discrimination and media coverage.
Staying informed about COVID-19
“Because of my level of education, I may be quite privileged because at least I’m able to use the computer at home. I always [provide] internet for almost everyone. I’m able to read information on my own, using the computer. I can search on the internet, and get a lot of information. Apart from that, I have the TV and radio. So by the level of my socioeconomic status, and my academic levels, I’m able to get that information [about COVID-19]. When you are well informed, that helps you to make correct decisions. But I know the people that must be hard hit, are those people who are blind and have no income. Most likely, they are the ones who may not be able to get the correct information.
“Just when the COVID-19 started, a week or two later I posted an article on [this issue], trying to share with the rest of the people the challenges that my colleagues, who are blind, maybe be facing because of COVID-19, because the information was barely there.
The hierarchy of needs
“Just after the lockdown, I had gone to Chipata, and [found] a blind person calling for help, ‘Tandiza, Tandiza (alms)’. I went to him and said, ‘Look, you are calling for tandiza, but there is a problem of corona now. And the people will be coming and [might touch] you. And some of them may be infected, and you end up being sick.’ I told him that I was also blind. I said, ‘It would be very bad for you to contract corona, and you die because of that.’
“He said, ‘Look sir, the first thing for me is to find a way of surviving, because I have no food. So, these people who pass through here, at least they’ll give me a two kwacha, a 10 kwacha. Maybe I will get infected. It’s better I die with corona, rather than dying with hunger.’
“I felt so bad about it, but I [understood his reasoning]. The lack of information has an impact on people, and they are making their own decisions. And sometimes, of course, we realise also, they are making those decisions, because they don’t have any other alternative.
Health care and discrimination
“The issues of disability and healthcare, even away from the corona aspect, are still a crucial matter, because our healthcare providers and medical practitioners, in their curriculum, [are not trained] on dealing with people with disabilities. So, I’ve had situations, even before corona, where I go to the hospital, because I’ve gone with a sighted guide, and you find that these medical doctors, instead of talking to me, will talk to my guide. You say, ‘But look, I’m here, sir. Why are you talking to me like this?’
“And you realise that these people, they are very challenged, because of their perception that people with disabilities may not be able to do certain things on their own. I’ve seen it myself: every time I go, I have challenges. They want to talk to me in the presence of the sighted guide. They want the sighted guide to be explaining on my behalf. And yet, I’m somebody who can speak. We can talk. I can explain my problems, and they should be able to attend to me privately.”
Media coverage of COVID-19
“The media coverage, specifically on the issues of disability, has not been adequate. That one is very clear – it has not been adequate. They have not really found a way of sharing [COVID-19] information, whether on the radio, in the print media… I have not seen much. They needed to find a way of bringing onboard people with disabilities themselves, and talk to them, and let them talk to the public. But sometimes they will bring people that may not be so knowledgeable about disability. And, those people say, ‘Oh, well the information is covering everyone,’ without realising that certain people need particular attention.
“I think the major concern is that the pandemic must be ended quickly, because we are running out of money. Even the president realises that with this lockdown, people may end up dying – not because of the corona, but because of hunger. Because when we run out of resources, how do we survive with the little money that we are able to generate from other sources of income, to keep us going?