By Shafa’atu Suleiman
Yakubu Ahmad (who is hard of hearing) and Aisha Usman (who is visually impaired) were oblivious to the growing public health emergency when the world was striving to stay safe amidst an ongoing pandemic. “It took weeks before I realised what was happening around me,” Ahmad articulates with the aid of an interpreter.
Ahmad sensed that something unusual only when he saw people wearing face masks on the street and those around him washing their hands more frequently. “Without adequate information and sensitisation, the deaf is at risk of contracting the virus,” he asserts with an insistent gesture.
Owing to the enlightenment programme organised in Sokoto by the Joint Association of Persons with Disabilities in collaboration with a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) the Life Helpers Initiative, he finally became fully aware of the ‘strange disease’. “That was when I realised that everyone has to take specific measures to keep safe.”
Based on these experiences, Ahmad calls for greater consideration for deaf persons, “We need interpreters at regular intervals to be abreast with any development on COVID-19.”
Similarly, 48-year-old Aisha, who is a housewife living in a hard-to-reach part of Sabon Birni in Sokoto State, did not initially grasp the dangers of this transmissible disease because of her visualnimpairment. Aisha struggles to articulate her thoughts: “I did not get any information on the new virus at the beginning. So, it was business as usual for me.”
Many living in remote locations of the state similarly lament on some interventions only being available within metropolitan areas. “For instance, during a recent distribution of food items, only those in the Sokoto South and Sokoto North out of the 23 local government areas benefitted,” a physically challenged Umm Halima observes, adding: “Also when an NGO provided face masks and hand sanitiser, only our members from these two localities received them.”
For individuals living with various forms of disability, lack of consideration for their distinctive needs in response to the novel virus has been worrisome. They are particularly concerned about the absence of specific social measures for persons with impairments and their families in coronavirus response.
For many of those living in Sokoto, this issue is further exacerbated by the stoppage of financial support which coincided with the pandemic.
Over the years, the Sokoto Government has provided financial support to the amount of 6,500 Naira per month to the indigent in the state.
However, this assistance ceased in December 2019. “Having to go without this monetary aid for the last ten months aggravated our hardships,” a 35-year-old leper Hamisu Isah observes.
“The lockdown has been really challenging for us.” Isah recounts his experience: “Before COVID-19, I was thriving with a modest daily income of N700−N1,000 from a small business of recharge card selling I conduct, which was made possible by the N6,500 stipend.”
But when the money stopped coming, the father of four had to turn to his savings: “I spent my savings and the capital in catering for my family of six.”
For Isah, his wife and four children, this meant reducing their food intake by two-thirds. “The three-square meals I hitherto gave my household have declined to just one. Even this I do with considerable strain,” he divulges, giving a deep despairing sigh.
Mukhtar Sani is the Secretary Joint National Association of Persons
with Disabilities (JONAPWD), comprising blind, deaf, physically challenged, lepers, individuals with spinal cord injury and of recent albinos in Sokoto.
He confirms that those who had invested N6,500 in small-scale businesses had to close when their capital dwindled to near zero.
The financial strains, as Sani observes, has wrecked homes of some JONAPWD members: “The several months they went without the monthly support necessary for the survival of their families caused rampant problems among many couples, including divorce, in Goronyo area of Sokoto State.”
The state government’s annual handout during a specific season came this year, too. Incidentally, they fell within the duration of the lockdown.
For example, during the Ramadan fasting period, the government provided aid parcels comprising rice, millet, sugar, cooking oil, and clothing.materials, along with N100,000 to each of the 23 local government chapters of JONAPWD with a predominantly Muslim population.
At the EID-el-Adha Islamic festival, which also took place within the COVID-19 lockdown, each category of persons with disabilities received a cow.
A few days ago, the State Zakat and Endowment Agency handed out foodstuffs such as sugar, rice, semolina, noodles and spaghetti to various groups of people in Sokoto.
As JONAPWD received 15% of this consignment, 250−300 of its members from Sokoto North and Sokoto South benefitted, leaving those from the remaining 21 local government areas of the state with no help,” the Secretary complains.
Some of those interviewed confirm that they received some help, but several others allege that politicisation prevented equitable disbursement.
Apart from already suffering its adverse economic effects, persons with disabilities in the State note that COVID-19 has also had detrimental social impacts, as they are witnessing heightened negative sentiment towards them.
“Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the social stigma of leprosy,” Umm Fatima expresses, adding: “It was as though we were back in the days of intense leprosy scorn. COVID-19 encouraged physical
distancing, but it was the estrangement that left us disenchanted.”
Umaru Kasha Rana, Coordinator of the Lepers Association, depicts the COVID-19 lockdown as particularly arduous for those affected by this condition: “Many of our members and their families go to bed hungry daily as the pandemic has decimated their sources of livelihood and has created immense hardships for them.”
He also notes that philanthropic deeds have dramatically declined during the pandemic:
“It was a taxing time for us, and the delay in disbursing our stipend further inflamed our plight.”
Haruna Mohammed Helele, Chair of the Joint Association of People with Disabilities, also points out: “Many of our members who are teachers and farmers or are earning a living by other means, have been made redundant. Since then, they have relied solely on their savings, which are now exhausted. Some have migrated to the western and eastern parts of the country in their struggle for survival.”
Because of these hardships, Helele calls for urgent intervention to save their members from resorting to full-time begging.
When asked why the state government stopped providing the N6,500 lifeline at such a critical time for those in need, Special Adviser on Disability Matters, Abdul-Azeez Ibrahim, responded: “We discovered anomalies in the payment system which we are trying to rectify.”
Still, he could provide some positive news: “Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal has allowed the release of one month’s allowance. From this, we will free the path for settlement of the outstanding nine months’ worth of payments.”
Ibrahim adds that the governor instructed them to make another consignment of foodstuffs available to persons with disabilities to help cushion the effect of COVID-19 on these already vulnerable individuals. “We are expecting the delivery from the State Emergency
Management Agency, SEMA,” he unveils.
“The items include millet, maize, and Guinea corn. We will ensure prompt release of the grains when the consignment arrives.”
Rights Advocate Aisha Sani brings to the fore Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
“Parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in a situation of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”
She also reminds all decision-makers of the need for inclusive responses to the pandemic. “We should leave no one out,” she underscores.