It is important to ensure accessible healthcare to chronically ill, elderly and persons with disabilities
At a time when the entire world is shaken by the coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic, we all need to take necessary precautions against it. A few weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID19 a global pandemic, more than half a million cases have been detected, the death toll is rising fast and all the countries in the world are suffering.
By all means, this is one of the biggest global challenges that humanity is facing in recent times. While the entire population is affected, statistics suggest that some groups such as older persons, people with disabilities and chronic sicknesses face additional risks. They may get separated from caregivers, find themselves in an inaccessible environment and face barriers to access essential medications and assistive devices. Despite the low number of detected cases, Nepal is uniquely vulnerable to this pandemic with the healthcare system that is far from being accessible to vulnerable groups. In this article, I discuss how the coronavirus affects these susceptible groups and how we can help them.
Access to care
While experiences from different countries suggest that simply being old or having a disability doesn’t necessarily put someone at ‘higher risk’ of coronavirus many of them have chronic health conditions or illness. The way our media is constantly ‘labeling’ them as people at serious risk without offering relevant information feels awful. Having both parents, in-laws and other relatives under risk category, my heart sinks when I hear such news. Another important issue is that people who normally have some breathing difficulties or other flu-like symptoms are under serious panic and we must guard them against fear-based impulses. Such a higher level of anxiety and fear accelerates the other health risks of its own.
It is therefore very important to take extra precautions to protect vulnerable people by giving ‘public health messages’ that are accessible to them. In some cases from Wuhan and other parts, it is observed that people with hearing limitations or other types of sensory disabilities were not even aware of the restrictions and thus were going out as usual. As recommended by the WHO, messages about coronavirus must be communicated in an accessible plain language that the elderly and people with all types of disabilities can understand so that they know where to go when they are susceptible to the symptoms. It is important to ensure that healthcare professionals have protective gear and coronavirus test kits and are sensitized to provide appropriate support to vulnerable groups when necessary.
Similarly, it is very important to ensure accessible healthcare as many chronically ill, elderly and persons with disabilities do not have proper access to these services in Nepal. Some of them require external assistance for self-care, for instance, to wash their hands and require support to maintain personal hygiene due to various personal and environmental barriers. In the worst case, when the caretakers and the family members of these vulnerable groups become sick, they become even more vulnerable. Another big worry is the stockpiling of the mandatory medications, regular medicines and assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, white canes, hearing aid, etc. Countries like Singapore, China, and Italy have responded by having more controlled, medically-supervised environments as there are also health risks involved in housing people with health vulnerabilities in hospitals and other kinds of care facilities. Such an environment may not be possible in Nepal but public health experts should advise pragmatic suggestions to protect the vulnerable population and their families to prepare themselves.
Let’s all help
In Nepal, the government has strongly regulated social distancing and put a high emphasis on the ways to maintain personal hygiene. People who traveled from abroad are instructed to live in the self or institutional quarantine before meeting their families. It is important to highlight social isolation but it should not mean a lack of love and compassion for the people who are highly in need of this. It is interesting to read innovative ways some communities are using to keep in touch with their families including critically sick neighbors.
Thankfully, internet and phone communication are accessible in Nepal. It can be a blessing to check on families that are separated due to the ‘lock-down’ or other travel restrictions. By a large number of people being sensitized who are also keeping their loved ones updated on the protection measures it certainly helps to fight the spread of the virus. The Buddha said: “When you can’t calm the storm… what you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass.” Hopefully, humanity will conquer the fight against tiny viruses soon.
We can all help by just being aware and sensitive to the specific risk and barriers faced by older persons, people with disabilities and others with chronic health conditions. We cannot solely rely on the government to deal with the crisis of this scale. We need to give assurance to the vulnerable population that they ‘have our backs’ when they need us. Finally, the authorities need to consult with people with disabilities, elderly persons and other vulnerable groups including their families to provide medically appropriate health facilities, goods and services in sufficient quantity and quality without any discrimination. Humanitarian actors need to take measures to ensure that people at risk are not left behind in their preparedness actions, messages and response.
The author is with Humanity and Inclusion in Bangladesh. Views are personal