The ‘forgotten tribe’: Persons with disabilities in Ethiopia and the State’s response to COVID-19

Author: Dagnachew B. Wakene
Institute for International and Comparative Law (ICLA), Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

A person with visual impairment residing in Dire Dawa – Ethiopia’s second largest city in the Eastern part of the country – was recently reported to have set himself on fire in broad daylight and in public, apparently attempting to commit suicide. His reason, as later affirmed by his neighbors and acquaintances, was that he was entirely segregated, deserted by society, including friends who, pre-COVID-19, would assist him as his guides, give him a hand to run errands and go out-and-about his daily routines. Now, owing to the COVID-19 era mantra of ‘social distancing’, no one would approach the blind man altogether, hence instilling in him a feeling of despair, abandonment, lack of self-worth, so much so that he no longer saw the need to continue living thus decided to set himself alight right there on the streets of Dire Dawa. He was rushed to the hospital afterwards, but only in vain. The man died a few days later while on treatment.

The foregoing anecdote is not something of an isolated incident. Citizens with disabilities in Ethiopia – the large majority of whom are among the ‘poorest of the poor’ according to various studies – are now also among the most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This status quo, albeit no concrete data or even a simple pilot survey has been made available hitherto by both State and non-state actors on the subject, can be presumed to have precipitated from either a disproportionate exposure of persons with disabilities (PWDs) to the virus due to their living conditions and disabilities and/or because of the infinitesimal attention given to the matter in systemic responses to the pandemic, especially by the principal duty-bearer – the Government.

Adding insult to injury, the mainstream media are not only oblivious to report alarming individual stories such as the one shared above which publicly occurred in Dire Dawa, the Ethiopian health-sector authorities conveying daily briefings on status of the pandemic appear to have forgotten their duty to make these updates accessible to everyone without distinction, PWDs included. When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in a live broadcast by the Minister of Health on Friday, 13 March 2020, for example, there was neither a simultaneous sign-language interpretation nor a mere captioning of the briefing as if this is not a matter of life-and-death to PWDs, as every other ‘non-disabled’ citizen alike. Then came the anticipated Declaration of State of Emergency by the Ethiopian Prime Minister on 8 April 2020 in relation to the pandemic wherein the Prime Minister called on the populace to, inter alia, “reach out to one another, the poor and needy”. An explicit word or two about PWDs in this Decree would have been ideal, given the obvious heightened vulnerability of constituencies like PWDs.

Put otherwise, the State has been, to say the least, indifferent to its solemn obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – a treaty Ethiopia is a State Party to since June 2010 – wherein ensuring the right to life, non-discrimination, accessibility to information and health facilities, full and effective inclusion of PWDs are among the core, binding principles. In February 2020, Ethiopia ratified the Marrakesh Treaty as well – another binding instrument obliging States Parties to make published works accessible to the blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled (abbreviated as ‘VIP’s). It took several days of outcry from the country’s disability fraternity for the government to finally hear the clarion call of its duty to make COVID-19 related communication disability-friendly. And yet, a lot still remains uncommunicated to PWDs, but at least prime-time news broadcasts have now begun providing sign-language translations.

Now, that is just about information – a tip of the iceberg. As for the extent to which COVID tests and treatments are reaching PWDs, the direct impact of lockdown and quarantines on disabled compatriots, availability and accessibility of personal protective equipment (PPEs), etc., the gloomy saga replicates Pandora’s box.

Needless to say, resource constraints in Ethiopia, as in most developing nations, is no news and is a prevalent nationwide denominator across numerous sectors. The crux of the matter, nonetheless, is not ingrained in resource allocation but rather in systemic change. The crux is embedded in a century’s old naïveté of our entire system undermining disability as a micro-concern, an object of charity – not more, not less, which’s a false narrative. No one can claim a lifetime immunity from disability as it, at any point in one’s trajectory, can be anybody’s own experience, not least when age catches up someday. Disability is an inherent identity – in and of its own accord – as established in contemporary human rights norms, including the newly adopted African Disability Rights Protocol (ADP). If a central diagnosis of the root causes of exclusion of PWDs is thus in our socio-institutional system, the antidote is right there too in the diagnosis itself – it’s systemic inclusion, i.e.  gradual dismantling of a mindset of Ableism.

In the words of Talila A. Lewis – a renowned disability rights attorney, ‘Ableism’ is defined as :

A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity… this form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. (Emphasis mine).

On 4 November 2016, the Geneva-based monitoring organ of the international disability treaty, known as the CRPD Committee, published its Concluding Observations to the Ethiopian Government’s Report of implementation of the Convention. One of the very first pieces of advice forwarded by the Committee to Ethiopia was this:

“The Committee is further concerned that persons with disabilities and their representative organizations are not systematically consulted in the development of all policies and laws, training and awareness-raising across all sectors…” (para. 7). (Emphases mine).

The almost unanimous opinion of local leaders in the Ethiopian disability sector during this pandemic enunciates the CRPD Committee’s concern expressed four years back which, to date, remains barely addressed ipso facto.

Indeed, the duty to protect PWDs is not and cannot be the government’s alone. Disoriented, uncoordinated and capacity-constrained leadership of disability associations in Ethiopia is an Achilles’ heel that we, persons with disabilities ourselves, must put in order so as to get efforts of State and non-state actors inclusive as well as synchronized. We ought to have have the audacity to clean up our homes first, because fundamental change is that which begins from within. It is evident to an insider in the country’s disability movement that among the few major, well-meaning NGOs claiming to be advocates for the rights of PWDs in Ethiopia, a few giant ones are in fact doing the exact contrary to what they preach – disempowering PWDs by misappropriation and squandering of the already meager resources meant for supporting the disabled.

With that being said, I would conclude this brief article with a reminder of the obvious. COVID-19 is about every citizen, not some. One’s well-being is practically that of others, and vice versa. In the world of coronavirus, we can only survive and thrive together. Each human being excluded, left behind by society will drag an entire nation backwards, at last dearly costing us all. That is what the celebrated African wisdom ‘Ubuntu’ tells as too: We are, because I am. I am, because we are.

About the Author:

Dagnachew B. Wakene is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for International and Comparative Law (ICLA), Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, with a research focus on violence against persons with disabilities in Africa. He holds an LLB degree from the Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) in Rehabilitation and Development Studies from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He currently serves as Regional Director for the Africa Disability Alliance (ADA).

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