The COVID-19 pandemic is acting like a magnifying glass—exposing in sharp relief the inequalities that often fester in relative obscurity during other times.
In Senegal, one of those inequalities is the access of people with disabilities to even the most basic of social services, such as health care and education. Fortunately, this community has champions in Senegal: the Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities (FSAPH) and its partner, the IBP in-country team.
Even before COVID-19 hit, FSAPH had identified a major gap in the country’s social-protection network: thousands of people with disabilities were missing from the national registry of poor households used by the government to determine beneficiaries of welfare services such as transportation, health care and education. A 2010 law guaranteed people with disabilities access to these services via an “equal opportunity card”—of which more than 50,000 had been distributed in the first five years. However, the federation determined last year that no new cards had been issued since the end of 2017, due primarily to budget cuts, as well as an incomplete registry. A concerted effort by FSAPH and IBP Senegal (with the support of the Health, Population and Social Action Commission of the National Assembly) resulted in the issuance of more than 5,000 equal opportunity cards.
Senegal has been praised for its rapid response to the novel coronavirus. Senegalese health officials, trained in the “crucible” of Ebola, drafted a contingency plan in January after receiving an alert on January 10 from an international network of health agencies. The country’s relatively low death toll (41) is due in part to a strategy that includes rapid testing, an extensive system of contact tracing and a bed for every person with the virus – no matter how mild their symptoms.
But the economic fallout from the night-time curfew and other restrictions has been severe and once again, FSAPH—ever vigilant—found that people with disabilities were suffering disproportionately.
“Many of the people we serve must engage in begging to support themselves and their families,” explains Moussa Thiare, FSAPH general secretary, who is himself visually impaired. “So, their choice is to continue to beg and risk their health or stay inside and lose their income. Crises always seem to create or at least exacerbate existing inequalities.”
FSAPH created a mechanism for monitoring and evaluating the needs of disabled people and to advocate for them with the Ministry of Community Development and Social and Territorial Equity. A key success has been assuring that a representative from the organization is included in the national and regional coordinating bodies for the COVID-19 response. FSAPH acts both as a collaborator with the government and as a watchdog. The team participates in local and national COVID- 19 committees, documents shortcomings and advocates with relevant authorities for immediate action, via mass media campaigns and constant engagement with decisionmakers.
In fact, the FASPH Monitoring Committee and another IBP partner, ONG 3D, convened a press conference May 21, 2020 to publicize the challenges encountered by people with disabilities during the pandemic, as well as to highlight their contributions to the fight. One FASPH office was made available as a treatment center, and several people with disabilities made protective face masks. One woman made 500 masks for FASPH as well as many more for other organizations.“This is important; most of the time, persons with disabilities are treated like they can’t do anything,” Moussa notes. “But they just need support and opportunity; then they can prove their competence.”
Although events are limited to no more than 10 people, the press conference was broadcast over TV. A day later, the Ministry of Community Development and Social Equity announced that an additional 55,000 households with disabled people would be added to the registry of poor people and receive assistance, including those with individuals being treated for leprosy.
“If it were not for IBP (which provides funding and technical support), we would have been left behind in the COVID-19 response,” notes Moussa. “Very often, too often, the rights of minority groups are neglected during crises.”
When needed, FSAPH fills urgent gaps with its own resources. For example, it distributes hand sanitizer and disinfectants to those who must go out. Awareness-building thus also has become vital, to assure that its constituents know how and when to use those supplies, as well as other ways to protect themselves.
Moussa points out that before FSAPH got involved, the government did not cater to the hearing-impaired when it gave its daily COVID-19 briefings. Now, however, sign-language interpretation has been added.
Another example: it’s very difficult for persons who are visually impaired, like Moussa, to practice physical distancing. A guide is needed, often at cost. FSAPH helps provide such services.
“People with disabilities have really seen their dependence on others increase, which makes us feel so much more vulnerable,” explains Moussa. “The restrictions on going out and earning an income makes it much harder to obtain food, for instance, and health care.”
As a result of the efforts of FSAPH, supported by IBP, the minister of community development and social and territorial equity has officially committed to ensuring that all equal opportunity card holders are included in the national registry for poor households and receive COVID-19 food assistance and other social-protection programs. In addition, Senegal’s president has instructed the Minister of Community Development to include services for almost 50,000 people with disabilities in the COVID-19 budget.
“This is a critical step toward enhancing government responsiveness and ensuring that vulnerable groups occupy accountability spaces,” says Moussa. He adds that the organization has worked to engage a large number of partners in the push for social change. As an example, he cites an organization of women who focus on access to health care. They are not doctors or nurses, but part of society. They are women whose leadership is recognized by the community. Another example are religious leaders.
“We believe in taking the lead to tackle our problems. We are part of society, and so we work broadly across it,” he notes.