ALERT- COVID-19 takes aim at planet’s most fragile inhabitants | April 9, 2020

Visual interview of Davide Olchini

Without appropriate action, the coronavirus pandemic stands to decimate vulnerable groups in the poorest, conflict- or disaster-ridden countries. HI is deeply concerned for vulnerable populations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Persons with disabilities, persons with chronic diseases, refugees, older people, etc., are particularly exposed to the pandemic. Displaced families are often sheltering in overcrowded camps in […]

Without appropriate action, the coronavirus pandemic stands to decimate vulnerable groups in the poorest, conflict- or disaster-ridden countries.

HI is deeply concerned for vulnerable populations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Persons with disabilities, persons with chronic diseases, refugees, older people, etc., are particularly exposed to the pandemic. Displaced families are often sheltering in overcrowded camps in countries where public health systems are poorly resourced while persons with disabilities have limited access to health services. Many countries already hit by a crisis will be unable to cope with the pandemic, causing catastrophic consequences especially for the most vulnerable. Humanitarian aid workers must have access to the most vulnerable to provide them with prevention and protection measures and to ensure that they receive essential humanitarian assistance.

COVID-19 is exacerbating humanitarian crises

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in Europe, it starts to threaten poor and low-income countries. COVID-19 has appeared in 46 African countries, with official reports of 4,750 positive cases, and 146 deaths as of Monday, 30 March. It is highly probable that many cases are unreported and therefore that this figure is underestimated.

The world’s poorest countries are ill prepared for the pandemic. Countries like Madagascar, Haiti, Sudan, Mozambique, etc., are already coping with humanitarian crises trigged by natural disasters, conflict, climate change, and other emergencies. Health systems in these countries are fragile or overstretched.  

In countries affected by long-term conflicts, health systems have also been decimated. In Yemen, torn apart by five years of war, 80% of the population needed humanitarian aid before COVID-19, and only 50% of the healthcare facilities system is fully functioning. The nine-year-old Syrian conflict has forced 12 million people to flee. As Syria’s essential infrastructure and economy are destroyed, 80% of Syrians currently live below the poverty line.

Many countries have implemented lockdown measures, effectively depriving a segment of the population from the humanitarian assistance they will need to survive. COVID-19 aggravates humanitarian needs, while limiting aid actors’ ability to reach the very populations in dire need of care and aid.

COVID-19 stands to ravage refugee camps

The vast majority of the world’s refugees (29 million people, 84% of refugees) are sheltering in low or middle-income nations with weak health systems, and overstretched water and sanitation facilities. A COVID-19 outbreak will put extraordinary strain on fragile local healthcare services, and likely result in suffering and higher rates of death than have been experienced in countries with more-developed health systems.

In Bangladesh, 855,000 Rohingya refugees are packed into 34 overcrowded, makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. What’s more, 450,000 host community members live in close proximity to the camps, with five camps intermixed with the local Bangladeshis. It could provide the coronavirus with near perfect conditions for rapid transmission if someone gets it. Measures of social distancing and basic hygiene are almost impossible to achieve in such a densely populated environment. Even at the best of times, the refugee population has low access to health services.

These aggravating factors give us every confidence that COVID-19 will spread at a terrifying pace-risking a heightened humanitarian disaster.

COVID-19 aggravates the isolation of persons with disabilities

COVID-19 is disrupting services that persons with disabilities usually rely on, including their access to a healthy caregiver. During health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, health systems in fragile countries are over-stretched and unable to respond to other healthcare needs. We’re also particularly worried that persons with disabilities will face stigma or discrimination from unprepared health staff or worse, be refused treatment if priority is given to patients without disabilities, due to limited capacity in hospitals.” says Anne Héry, HI Director of Advocacy and Institutional Relations

Persons with disabilities represent 15% of the worldwide population (1 billion people), yet 80% of them live below the poverty line, according to World Health Organisation (WHO). They face multiple obstacles to access services including health services, among which cost of care services, cost for transportation to go to a health centre, lack of sign language interpretation, stigma and discrimination, etc., are just a few examples.

When they are able to access health care, only half of persons with disabilities are able to afford to pay for care (WHO).

Some persons with specific disability types are at higher risk of contracting and developing severe cases of COVID-19, as the infection exacerbates existing health conditions that they experience, such as weakened immune systems, respiratory conditions, or other chronic conditions. Lack of information on COVID-19 in accessible formats (easy read formats, captions or sign language, braille, audio materials, and materials accessible to screen reading software) and accessible sanitation facilities also represent risk factors for some persons with disabilities. Public measures and humanitarian actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to care for patients must include persons with disabilities. Prevention information should always be distributed in a variety of accessible formats and health actors should specifically target vulnerable populations throughout their response efforts.

Continuing rehabilitation services is also crucial for injured person or person with disabilities in order to avoid further impairment and improve mobility. Telemedicine, including tele-rehabilitation (i.e. the delivery of rehabilitation services over telecommunication networks and the internet) can play a critical role to ensure that “at risk” patients can continue benefiting from a safe rehabilitation follow-up.

HI Head of Prevention and Health Unit Davide Olchini explains why people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 


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