By Busiswa Sobani
COVID-19 did not only disrupt people’s lives across the globe, but some especially the vulnerable were in a moment of fear, forgotten and made to bear a disproportionate burden of the pandemic.
In Kwekwe, Sally Mugabe Day Care Centre for disabled children was arbitrarily appropriated and turned into a COVID-19 quarantine centre. The children’s welfare and healthcare service delivery took secondary precedence, as authorities fought the new pandemic.
However, six months later in the lockdown, there has been only two COVID-19-related admissions into the centre, raising serious concerns about the initial decision to convert the centre into a quarantine facility, leaving the disabled further exposed.
As Zimbabwe gradually re-opens schools, the fate of over 50 children living with disability who were being catered for daily at the centre housed at Kwekwe General Hospital hangs in the balance.
Zimbabwe Parents of Handicapped Children Association (ZPHCA) local representative Chipo Mushininga, who manages the centre said they were told of the ‘take-over’ verbally, and due process was not followed.
She said there was a need for at least prior consultations with the local COVID-19 taskforce and the hospital’s medical superintendent Dr Patricia Mapanda.
“I was only made aware of the conversion of the centre into a ward by word of mouth, there was no written communication to that effect.
“The centre has been in existence since 1996 and we always had an understanding with hospital management and we never thought we could get to this day with no solution for an alternative place for the children to be housed.”
Before its conversion, Mushininga said the centre was offering care to children who are physically impaired, some with celebral palsy.
“We teach them life skills to assist them in their daily living. We were making progress with the children before COVID struck,” she said.
Through home visits, the day care officials are reporting that the children are showing signs of regressing into their former state before they accessed comprehensive care such as socialisation, education, care, and rehabilitation.
Mushininga said amid the declining health of the children, they have since made desperate appeals to government to no avail.
“We were told that government was looking into the issue by one minister and that was the end of it,” she said.
Kwekwe District Development Committee and COVID-19 Taskforce Chairperson Fortune Mupungu said they had not made initial requests to have the day care facility turned into a COVID-19 response centre, as there were other alternatives.
“We requested a private ward at Kwekwe General Hospital to be used as a COVID 19 unit. It was not our decision to use the day care centre, but it was an internal Kwekwe General Hospital agreement,” said Mapungu.
This development however could have been averted if government had an inclusive approach to the COVID-19 response. This case is a small-scale version of what is happening at a larger stage to people with disability.
Many people with disability came into the COVID-19 crisis already facing significant exclusion in all areas of the response.
The pandemic has exposed some uncomfortable truths about attitudes in the country towards people with disabilities.
People with disability have been relegated to the sidelines on access to information on COVID-19.
Zimbabwe has one national television broadcaster ZBC TV which has failed in providing information in accessible formats for people with hearing and sight impairments. The same goes for ministries involved in the COVID-19 fight.
Homogenous COVID-19 lockdown restrictions imposed by the government at the height of spike in cases left people with disabilities in a dilemma with regards to accessing lifesaving medication as it was difficult for them to go to health care centres.
Mcebisi Phiri from the Midlands Committee on Disability under the Federation of Organisations of People with Disability in Zimbabwe said there is need for inclusion in emergency planning from the start.
“People with disability voices should be sought out and government should work closely with communities. Special funds should be put in place considering the vulnerability of people with disability in pandemic or disaster situations,” he said.
As Nontokozo Lunga, a 21-year-old woman with disability said “COVID 19 fight is said to be survival of the fittest and it seems like the ‘fittest’ do not include people with disability.”
Efforts to get an official comment from authorities in the Ministry of Health and Childcare were futile.