July 21, 2020
By Krishna Gahatraj – Secretary of National Association of the Physical Disabled-Nepal
Globally, it is estimated that there are more than one billion people living with some form of disability, or 15 per cent of total the world’s population. 80 per cent of them live in developing and underdeveloped countries. Over the last few months, the whole world has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and its huge socio-economic impacts. Persons with disabilities are one of the most excluded groups in societies around the world and are among the hardest hit in terms of fatalities in this crisis.
The UN COVID-19 brief, issued in May 2020, states that the global crisis is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting that work on disability inclusion is imperative. Persons with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to inaccessible information, negative attitudes, inaccessible health facilities, social distancing challenges and inadequate social protection measures.
Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities are less able to access health care, education or employment, and to participate in the community. They are more likely to live in poverty, experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse, and are among the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community. COVID-19 has further compounded this situation, disproportionately impacting persons with disabilities both directly and indirectly.
People with disabilities are not homogenous; the group encompasses a wide range of human diversity based on caste, ethnicity, race, sex, religion, geography, impairments and other characteristics. The degree of impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic also varies with these intersections, even amongst persons with disabilities. Therefore, it is essential to analyze these impacts with an intersectional lens to reach the most at risk people.
An estimated 260 million people – with the vast majority of them from South Asia – are classified as so-called lower caste and, therefore, treated as ‘untouchable’. This classification is principally based on Hindu mythology and caste-based hierarchical societal structure. The status of these 260 million people, recognized as Dalits, deprives them of participation in the socio-economic, cultural, and political mainstream. According to the Nepal Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2011, Dalits constituted about 13.6 per cent of the total population. They are further divided into ‘Hill Dalits’ and ‘Madhesi Dalits’, mainly based on geographical and cultural perspectives. Caste-based discrimination and untouchability are the root cause of the problems Dalits face. Dalits in Nepal have been a socio-economically, culturally and politically excluded and marginalized community for centuries.
A prolonged and unsystematic lockdown hits hardest the lives of Hill Dalits with Disabilities in Nepal
Disability and poverty perpetuate one another, and since Dalits are the poorest of the poor in Nepali society, Dalit communities constitute higher numbers of persons who are living with a form of disability. However, Nepali government statistics do not disaggregate data and as such there is no official data yet on how many Dalits with Disabilities there are in Nepal.
Story from Butwal Sub-Metropolitan City, Province-5 of Nepal
Like many countries, since March 24, 2020, Nepal has adopted a countrywide lockdown as a primary measure of controlling the transmission of COVID-19. This unsystematically and suddenly issued, indefinite lockdown by the Nepal Government has worsened the lives of so-called lower caste families.
In the small Dalit settlement on the banks of the Tinau river of the Satyawati area, Tara Pariyar resides in a one-room cottage with her five family members. She’s been worrying more about her daughters than herself during lockdown. Ms. Pariyar used to do tailoring and her husband got his daily wages in the construction sector, but now, they have lost both of their incomes due to lockdown. Ms. Pariyar is pregnant and they are worried about putting food on the table.
Ms. Pariyar has a daughter with an intellectual disability who needs continual personal assistance to take care of her needs. It has been very challenging when she asks for food. Ms. Pariyar, with tears in her eyes, says that her daughter asks for food the whole day: she doesn’t know there is lockdown. Nine months pregnant Ms. Pariyar is also an asthma patient. She’s been further diagnosed with lack of adequate nutrients along with pneumonia. The precariousness caused by lockdown has put their lives under a bigger threat of death from hunger, rather than COVID-19 itself.
Forty-year-old Dhatananda Pariyar belongs to another family residing in the same settlement but faces a fate similar to that of his neighbors. Mr. Pariyar lives alone in a twelve hundred rupees per month rented room. He is blind and faces a great challenge obtaining food. Before lockdown, he used to manage his daily survival by selling incense and candles. But since the restrictions on movement and the closure of markets mean that he cannot go out to sell, he has had to manage his daily survival on a hundred rupees collected from begging for a full morning. Now he worries he will die of hunger if he is not able to do one or the other – either selling his products or begging.
Another family, Ms. Sama Maya Pariyar and her husband, Mr. Raju Pariyar, also residing in the settlement, are in a similar situation. They have a small tent house on the banks of the Tinau river where their family of seven lives. They used to work in the construction sector before the lockdown. Now, they are unemployed, and they are worrying about how to save their children from hunger. They are also under constant threat of storms which could destroy their tent house at any time. The countrywide lockdown has worsened their livelihoods while pushing them further into poverty and inequality.
Socio-economically deprived and landless, Dalits with Disabilities are at high risk of hunger and starvation owing to the multiple barriers to accessing basic services. Due to lack of disaggregated data on persons with disabilities, local governments do not have concrete plans on how to provide support to them during lockdown. The closure of markets in lockdown has had a particular impact on those persons with disabilities engaged in self-employment, like Mr. Pariyar, because they cannot reach the customer base which they rely on for survival. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a few Dalits with Disabilities were provided with some food items as part of relief packages. However, many more were left behind in accessing these benefits due to the lack of information and formal documents.
Story from Birendranagar Municipality of Karnali Province of Nepal
Ms. Gauli Damai, resident of the Birendranagar Municipality of Surkhet district, is from a poor family belonging to the ‘Hill Dalits’ community. She is now in her fifties and living with her family. Ms. Damai got diagnosed with meningitis at age twenty-seven when she lived with her seven-year-old daughter and husband. She could not access good quality treatment due to the price and so she experienced further complications in her spinal cord and became paralyzed. She started using a wheelchair for mobility and requires personal assistance. When she became paralyzed, her husband left her and her daughter, and re-married.
Ms. Damai used to do tailoring to support herself, but when the government suddenly issued the months-long lockdown, she lost her income. With the loss of her income came the loss of basic necessities including food, medical supplies, incontinence products, urinary bags and Clean Intermittent Catheterization (CIC).
She neither has food nor the basic medical supplies required for her everyday survival. Health and hygiene supplies to keep her safe from COVID-19 are out of the question.
Nor has Ms Damai yet received any kind of support from the government or other agencies. According to the Nepal government’s welfare system, persons with disabilities who are registered receive a red and blue color disability identity card depending on the degree of severity of their impairments. Once registered they can receive a disability allowance as part of social protection schemes. However, this allowance is so nominal that it is far from adequate for survival and independence.
Furthermore, the Nepal government decided not to provide relief packages to those who receive these regular social security allowances. Due to this legal barrier, many Dalits with Disabilities like Ms. Damai are left behind from accessing extra support as part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the losses of income caused by the lockdown.
Ms Damai says that she doesn’t have any options besides dying if faced with anything worse than her present situation.
A prolonged and unsystematic lockdown hits hardest the lives of Madhesi Dalits with Disabilities in Nepal
Province 2 of Nepal has the highest multidimensional poverty index out of its seven provinces. The province also has a high prevalence of Madhesi communities. Madhesi Dalits are the most marginalized, socio-economically, culturally and politically deprived community, even among the Dalits. A large majority of Madhesi Dalits are illiterate and landless, and some are even homeless. Therefore, Madhesi Dalits with Disabilities face discrimination and exclusion from all angles in their everyday lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them further below their already disadvantaged position at the bottom of society.
Mr. Amrit Ramani is a permanent resident of Chandranagar Rural Municipality. Mr. Ramani has five family members living together in a very old, small hut. He does not have his own land. Mr. Ramani used to earn daily wages for the family’s livelihood. He has a physical disability and his elder son has polio, so they both use sticks to aid with their mobility. Being a person with disabilities belonging to the Madhesi Dalit community, Mr. Ramani has lived experience of social exclusion, caste-based discrimination and untouchability. Mr. Ramani’s family face multiple barriers in their society, making survival a great challenge even in normal circumstances.
The lockdown abruptly dried up their only source of income. Mr. Ramani is in very poor health due to hypertension. The family do not have their own source of drinking water. While it is countrywide, Mr. Ramani’s family are unaware of why this lockdown has been issued. Due to a lack of COVID-19 information in their local language and in easily understood formats, his family does not know how to stay safe.
Mr. Kisin Dev Bin, a forty-year old Dalit with Disabilities who resides in Chandranagar Rural Municipality-2 of Sarlahi district, lives with his six family members. Mr. Bin and his wife, both have disabilities. Without their own land, they survived on daily wage-labour. Now, they have neither adequate food in stock nor do they have money to purchase it. They have been surviving with help from their neighbors. But as the lockdown draws on, it has been extremely challenging for them. Mr. Bin said, “We are obliged to eat edible green vegetable leaves found at roadsides.”
All these stories tell the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of Dalits with Disabilities. Dalits with Disabilities are more likely to face hunger due to loss of their livelihoods and lack of government support, lack of health information and access to essential equipment and treatment, discrimination, depression and anxiety, inability to adhere to physical distancing, and lack of hygiene facilities.
Dalits with Disabilities are the most marginalized and excluded minority group in Nepal. The unsystematically issued, countrywide lockdown did an injustice to so-called lower caste people. Notwithstanding the threat of virus, the lockdown has put their lives in danger due to hunger and starvation. The government has not reached the neediest families to save their lives.
Furthermore, during the lockdown, there have been some cases of rape of Dalit girls with disabilities. Many cases of caste-based discrimination and untouchability have been reported by the media. The Nepal government must be held accountable and responsible for addressing the needs of every member of its population.