By Jesus Martinez, landmine survivor and human rights activist for persons with disabilities and survivors of armed conflict, El Salvador
People with disabilities, including survivors, are often excluded from the various spheres of state activity and support. In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we need to reflect on how state emergency measures to combat the virus should be upholding the rights of everyone, including survivors and other persons with disabilities without exception.
Almost all countries have declared a national emergency to combat the pandemic and El Salvador is no exception. Within this framework the country has implemented relative measures such as physical distancing, restrictions on mobility, and home confinement, among others.
These measures exacerbate the difficulties of individuals who require personal assistance, as well as persons with disabilities who require frequent healthcare, and those who are studying. The latter are affected in the sense that most of them do not have the technological and pedagogical resources or the accessible teaching materials (braille guides, auditory devices, videos with signed interpretation etc.) needed to continue their studies from home.
In the case of El Salvador, official information about the national emergency and measures to prevent contracting the coronavirus was not readily accessible for survivors with hearing, visual or intellectual disabilities.
In a public statement released on March 17, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Catalina Devandas stated clearly “Little has been done to provide the necessary guidance and supports to people with disabilities to protect them during the current COVID-19 pandemic, even though many of them belong to the high-risk group.” Her statement also noted that the measures of protection could be detrimental, “Containment measures, such as social distancing and personal isolation, may be impossible for those who require support to eat, dress, or shower.”
Rights and care for persons with disabilities in emergency situations
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), under article 11 relating to situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies, establishes that states shall adopt the measures necessary to guarantee the safety and protection of persons with disabilities, including survivors.
In ratifying the relevant conventions, the CRPD, Mine Ban Treaty, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, states are obligated to implement measures, including national legislation to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities and survivors. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, states have focused their efforts on combatting the pandemic but have omitted the implementation of effective mechanisms for the full inclusion of survivors and persons with disabilities.
Equality and non-discrimination
National institutions in charge of the COVID-19 emergency response must take into account human diversity and must establish mechanisms that ensure equality and non-discrimination based on disability.
In the case of El Salvador, there is a lack of official information on the implementation measures to ensure the fundamental rights of persons with disabilities such as healthcare, education, and income generation are not diminished or eroded.
Right to health, including access to medicines and psychological care
Most state institutions in El Salvador, as elsewhere, have been closed due to the coronavirus. The exceptions are health institutions, which focus efforts on people affected by the coronavirus.
However, even in the case of public health emergencies individuals’ access to healthcare continues to be a human right, and survivors have specific needs such as mobility devices, rehabilitation, psycho-social support, and ongoing requirement for medication due to their injuries.
These are now less available due to the emergency. Survivors not only have to face the restrictive measures related to the pandemic, but also have to deal with the limited access to services affected by disability.
Trade and economies are currently affected in all countries, and survivors in Latin America cannot escape this harsh new reality. Many are engaged in entrepreneurial projects. In such a situation, governments must establish effective mechanisms so that persons with disabilities are not overly burdened.
As a measure to alleviate the economic pressures on people with low-incomes, El Salvador is providing a one-time US$300 subsidy for the purchase of food. However, all pensioners including survivors were excluded from receiving this help, despite some survivors’ very low pensions allowances. That means that survivors’ living expenses are not covered because their sources of income, such as small businesses, have ceased due to the containment measures.
Statistical data and the right to an adequate standard of living
Many states lack statistical data on the number of persons with disabilities and survivors, their geographical location, socioeconomic status, age, and gender. As a result in such a national emergency they are effectively excluded from being identified for humanitarian assistance programs provided by the state or NGOs. Humanitarian assistance must go beyond the delivery of food packages and consider other needs related an individual’s disability and needs, including medication, rehabilitation, technical aids, and sanitation, among others.
Effective inclusion of survivors and persons with disabilities in the COVID-19 response and similar emergencies, requires that all states consult affected individuals and their representative organizations, since it is they who know best about their needs.