Digital baithak: COVID-19 and persons with disabilities

Fri, 04, 20

It has to be understood that people with disabilities are at an increased risk of exposure and complications during the outbreak....

In the wake of the current Coronavirus pandemic, Network of Organisations Working for Peoples with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP) organised a webinar discussing what people with disabilities (as well as their caregivers) can do to prevent it and what to do in case they are affected. Speakers included Dr Maryam Mallick, Technical Advisor on Disability, Rehabilitation and Road Safety, WHO Pakistan; Dr Salman Kirmani, Director, KDSP, and Chair of Paediatrics, AKUH Pakistan; Dr Sara Saeed, Co-Founder and CEO, Sehat Kahani; the session was moderated by Omair Ahmed, Executive Director NOWPDP.

To begin with, let’s get the basics straight: A person has to be within six feet of a carrier to catch the viral. It is also possible to get COVID-19 if you touch a contaminated surface or object and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Symptoms such as cough, fever, diarrhea, and shortness of breath appear within two to 14 days following exposure.

Thinking as a community

It has to be understood that people with disabilities are at an increased risk of exposure and complications during the outbreak. Not because of the disability itself, but due to barriers like implementing hygiene values. For instance, some might have difficulty accessing hand basins or even washrooms to maintain their hygiene. Some have difficulty to rub their hands. A lot of emphasis is being placed on social distancing, which again is problematic because they usually need that additional support.

Besides, when we talk of physical support, it means people who are taking care of the person with disability, whether it’s family or caregivers, must be careful about their own hygiene practice as well since the patient has a weak immune system. WHO has issued a comprehensive document outlining the roles and responsibilities of important stakeholders. Simple actions such as adhering to respiratory etiquettes and discarding used tissues properly go a long way in stopping the spread of infection. If there’s a medical issue such as secretion, it should be cleaned immediately otherwise it can become a source of infection. What’s more, for person with disability using assistant technology, for example walkers and transfer boards, it’s up to the guardian to ensure that the surface is disinfected frequently.

Disseminating information

Another major issue stems from the discrimination people with disabilities face when it comes to their right to information and healthcare. It is essential that the government’s pandemic response is disability-inclusive. The government is definitely more involved, more committed to resolving these issues, but there are certain steps that can be taken to make things better.

The best way to provide accurate and timely information about the disease, its prevention, and services available is to run a targeted media campaign. A simple tweak in the message, adding interpretations maybe, can play a huge role in getting people with disabilities to access the solutions available. The same social media channels or television channels that air problematic news constantly (and thereby cause panic and anxiety among the masses) can take advantage of the fact that the majority of the population is consuming it profusely at the moment; educate the people with disability or their caretakers regarding health issues and how to seek help in case of emergencies.

Also, include people with disabilities in whatever assessments which are being carried out during the humanitarian crisis: build a database according to age, sex, and disability; consult them before implementing a plan; check whether the diagnostic facilities are accessible or whether a trained person could be sent to collect their samples at home only.

There’s this misconception particularly where people with intellectual disabilities are concerned that it’s no use explaining the situation to them. This attitude has to change. Give them as much information as possible according to their level. It’s a global crisis and everyone is finding it challenging to keep up with the change in routine. Tell them what’s happening, why it’s happening, what they can do to for their own safety, and how to remain positive in these challenging times because they are definitely more stressed and anxious than other groups.

Securing digital aid

Like everyone else, people with disabilities must avoid public/crowded spaces as much as possible. Help them (if they are unable to do it themselves) stockpile important medical and food items to minimize trips outside. A lot of this stuff can be purchased online.

In fact, with lockdowns and closed OPDs across the country, it is better to opt for telemedicine platforms like Sehat Kahani, which connects a patient to female doctors using chat, audio, and video mediums 24/7. All one has to have is an internet connection and a smartphone/laptop/tablet to get free online consultation. Download it on Android ( or iOS (https:// or signup from their website ( signup), and register with an email or social media account.

The Sehat Kahani initiative can be embedded in community-based rehabilitation (CBR), too, that is “a multisectoral approach working to improve the equalisation of opportunities and social inclusion of people with disabilities while combating the perpetual cycle of poverty and disability.” Even when there are no restrictions on movement and activities, health workers such as polio teams and midwives can be trained to help their community members virtually and effectively.

Government support during COVID-19:

  • Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme ( – The Prime Minister launched the largest-ever social|protection initiative in the history of Pakistan in response to COVID19. 12 million families (72 million individuals) will receive Rs. 12,000 each
  • Ehsas Rashan Programme ( – Individuals in need of food rations and those willing to donate will be able to register.
  • Sehat Sahulat Programme ( – Ensures the under-privileged citizens across the country get access to their entitled medical health care in a swift and dignified manner without any financial obligations

Credible sources of information for latest updates and queries:

  • National Institute of Health (
  • Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (
  • CoronaVirus Chat Bot (
  • Pakistan Government, live dashboard (
  • Ministry of Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division (
  • Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (