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Confronting COVID: How Civil Society is Responding Across Countries | The Rights of Persons With Disabilities

February 10, 2021
Economic Policy Responses to COVID-19 Must Uphold the Rights of Persons With Disabilities

Guest blog by Polly Meeks, independent researcher and consultant; Dr. Elizabeth Lockwood, CBM Representative at the United Nations, CBM Global Disability Inclusion & Dr. Mohammed Ali Loutfy, Disabled People’s International (DPI) executive director, and co-representative of the Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities to the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What are the impacts of the pandemic on persons with disabilities and how are they evolving?

The impacts of the pandemic on persons with disabilities have been dire. The recent  COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor report, based on a survey of over 2,000 persons with disabilities and their allies across the globe, paints a harrowing picture of rights violations. This includes denial of life-saving COVID-19 treatment on the basis of disability, leading to "many preventable deaths”. It also includes failures to protect the lives and safety of persons with disabilities living in institutions, resulting in shocking cases of neglect against older persons with disabilities, some of whom have been left to die in appalling conditions. The report also found that many governments have not adequately ensured persons with disabilities could access essential commodities like food and medicine.

Persons with disabilities experiencing intersecting forms of discrimination have been at particular risk during the lockdown. For example, women with disabilities face a heightened risk of sexual violence in general, and this risk can be exacerbated during mandated lockdowns. Yet often violence-related services such as shelters and emergency hotlines are inaccessible to women with disabilities.

In addition, as the pandemic has evolved, it has amplified existing barriers that prevent persons with disabilities accessing education and income opportunities on an equal basis with others. When schools are forced to close due to COVID-19, remote learning alternatives are not always accessible for children with disabilities, while the livelihoods of many adults with disabilities have become more precarious than ever.
Mohammed Ali Loutfy, Pratima Gurung, Risnawati Utami, Megan Smith, and Maulani
Rotinsulu at the High-level Political Forum, UN Headquarters, July 2017.
What are some key policy debates related to how the pandemic responses affect persons with disabilities?
COVID-19 has wrought such devastation in the lives of the world’s one billion persons with disabilities that all policy debates on pandemic responses are profoundly relevant – from immediate questions such as access to treatment and vaccines, to the far-reaching debate on how to ‘build back’ better political and economic systems centred on human rights, social and climate justice.
As well as the content of the debates, the extent to which they allow for transparency, accountability, and participation is also a key issue for persons with disabilities. It is as yet rare for the voices of representative organisations of persons with disabilities to be heard in such discussions (with a few positive exceptions such as some UN-civil society dialogue). And a widespread lack of disability-disaggregated data makes it all the harder to hold governments to account for fulfilling their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in their COVID-19 responses.

What are the priority measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic?
The International Disability Alliance has set out ten recommendations for upholding the rights of persons with disabilities in response to the pandemic:

    1.    Persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and the services offered, in a diversity of accessible formats

    2.    Additional protective measures must be taken for people with certain types of impairment 

    3.    Rapid awareness-raising and training of personnel involved in the response are essential

    4.    All preparedness and response plans must be inclusive of and accessible to women with disabilities

    5.    No disability-based institutionalization and abandonment is acceptable

    6.    During quarantine, support services, personal assistance, physical and communication accessibility must be ensured

    7.    Measures of public restrictions must consider persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others

    8.    Persons with disabilities in need of health services due to COVID-19 cannot be deprioritized on the ground of their disability

    9.    Organisations of persons with disabilities can and should play a key role in raising awareness of persons with disabilities and their families. 

    10.    Organisations of persons with disabilities can and should play a key role in advocating for disability-inclusive response to the COVID-19 crisis

The International Disability Alliance has also made recommendations on the need to prioritise persons with disabilities in accessing COVID-19 vaccinations, and to ensure that vaccinations and related information and decision making processes are fully accessible.

Complementing these priorities, the International Disability Alliance and other disability rights experts are advocating the development of collectively financed, comprehensive, inclusive and permanent social protection systems to strengthen the capacity of persons with disabilities to deal with the challenges and negative outcomes that the pandemic has caused.

What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing human rights into these debates?

To implement our recommendations in full requires that all economic and financial policy decisions – from spending allocations and procurement policy to taxation and private sector regulation – be fully consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In particular, it is crucial for governments to allocate dedicated, rights-compliant resources to promote social justice for persons with disabilities during the pandemic and beyond – national budget resources foremost, but also Official Development Assistance.
This in turn highlights the urgency of tackling wider injustices – from excessive debt burdens that deprive states of resources to implement socially just policies, to regressive and unjust tax systems that allow the richest to dodge paying their fair share towards pandemic response and recovery.

Yet a key challenge is that the rights of persons with disabilities are often overlooked in economic policy debates. Sometimes it is assumed that, so long as economic policy seeks to tackle income inequality, this will ensure substantive equality for persons with disabilities. Actually, disability rights have important and specific implications for diverse areas of economic policymaking – from adjusting fiscal policies for the extra costs of living with disability, through prioritising accessibility as a criterion in public procurement, to assessing the disability rights impacts of using public resources to mobilise private finance. Unless disability (together with other intersecting identities) is considered explicitly in such policy decisions, there is a risk that some of the most marginalised people will be excluded even further.

This challenge has prompted the Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities to release a new briefing, which unpacks in more detail how some of the key international debates on financing for development in the era of COVID-19 might look if a disability rights lens was applied.

Reversing the devastating discrimination against persons with disabilities that the pandemic has laid bare will take much more than economic policies alone. But ensuring that the rights of persons with disabilities are never sidelined in economic policy discussions is one indispensable step towards building back a more just system for everyone after COVID-19.
The Confronting COVID series profiles how our civil society partners in various countries are responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that human rights norms, tools and strategies are playing in economic policy debates at the national level.