Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Ezekiel Kumwenda, Executive Director of the Malawi Union of the Blind (MUB) and president of the African Federation of the Deafblind (AFDB), has steadfastly advocated for persons with disabilities being included in government responses to the pandemic. In interviews with print and broadcast journalists in Malawi, he has urged officials to make their public health messages as inclusive as possible, and he has noted the discriminatory nature of some of their containment measures, such as social distancing. “People with disabilities, especially those who are blind and Deafblind and rely on caregivers, it means they will not be active. It means it will be very difficult for them to move from one place to another,” he says, without someone to help them.
Through press releases and public service announcements that have aired on more than 60 radio stations across the country, the MUB Executive Director is spreading the word that no one can be left behind during this pandemic. Among Kumwenda’s recommendations – public health information about COVID-19 must be released in a diversity of accessible formats, including Braille and tactile sign language, a form often used by Deafblind people that allows them to communicate by feeling the hands of the person they are signing with. “The most unfortunate part of it is that people with disabilities have not yet been included,” says Kumwenda. “For example, we have seen government coming up with different messages, but the messages most of the time are coming through television and some of them are coming through print media, so [for] people who are blind and those who are Deafblind, it becomes very very difficult for them to access information through that channel.”
Kumwenda is particularly concerned about persons with disabilities living in rural Malawi who have no radio, phone, or TV – and no way of knowing what’s happening with the virus or how to protect themselves against it. Last month, before the government’s containment measures, he and some of his colleagues and a journalist traveled to some of these remote communities to distribute hand sanitizer and talk about COVID-19. “At first, they were not aware of this pandemic. They don’t know because no one is able to reach them,” he says. “I told them about the outbreak, that they have to take care of themselves so that they are in no way affected by this coronavirus, and I told them some of the preventative measures that the government has put in place and some of the information that I got from the International Disability Alliance as to how people with disabilities can best be assisted.”
Kumwenda, who is blind and partially deaf and lives by himself, has seen his own situation become more precarious as the pandemic winds on. “If I don’t work, it means no one is going to pay me. If I don’t have money, it means it will not be possible for me to buy food and even maybe give to my assistant so that maybe that person can keep on supporting me,” he says. “It’s like survival of the fittest. Whatever comes to us is what we depend on.”