Respecting The Dignity Of Disabled Persons During Pandemics…A Closer Look At UNESCO’S Interventions In The Zim COVID-19 Battle

ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation (WHO), close to three million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded globally. To date, more than a hundred thousand deaths have also been reported on a global scale. As at 26 April 2020, Zimbabwe had recorded 31 COVID-19 cases including four deaths and two recoveries.

 By Michael Gwarisa

As the world grapples with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, governments are absorbed with containing and minimising further spread of the virus. Various governments including Zimbabwe have instituted national Lockdowns as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19.

The initial Zimbabwe lockdown lasted 21 days and was extended for another two weeks on April 20, 2020. As the COVID-19 cases continue on an upward trend, the level of vulnerability amongst Zimbabwean communities also increases as this also means governments have to put in place more stringent measures to contain the virus’s spread which in turn also affects the dignity and livelihoods of many.

Lockdowns and other measures that have put in place by governments to contain the virus on the other hand exposes persons with disabilities to numerous economic and social challenges considering that majority of them are not gainfully employed and survive on alms and donations from well-wishers.

Persons with disabilities represent 15 percent of the world population and in Zimbabwe the percentage is 9 percent, but it is very likely underestimated. According to the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 80 percent of persons with disabilities live in low- and middle-income settings and are very frequently among the poorest populations in those settings. Girls and women with disabilities are two times more exposed to violence and abuses than those without disabilities.

Speaking to HealthTimes, UNESCO Head  of Unit of the Social and Human Sciences Sector, Mr Phinith Chanthalangsy said  they were supporting  government and national stakeholders in Zimbabwe in advancing the human rights, providing Ethical/Bioethical Frameworks, and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in the responses to COVID-19.

While it is essential to save life, it is also of utmost importance to save the dignity of all lives in times of emergency. UNESCO is working closely with the UN System at the national level to highlight the Human Rights and the Ethical standards that will need to be upheld by all stakeholders while responding to and containing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

People with disabilities are generally the worst hit when disasters and disease outbreaks happen. They are also left behind in disasters responses and are starved of live-saving information.

“In the face of Covid-19 global crisis, UNESCO and Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe (LCDZ) have produced and disseminated 2 series of videos in accessible formats:  Sensitization materials providing basic information on the disease and the prevention; and advocacy videos calling on the government to address the specific needs of persons with disabilities, especially women and girls with disabilities. Upcoming this week, 20 videos in Sign language, English, Shona and Ndebele, on”

UNESCO has also come up with a number of ethical guidelines for policy makers, media and stakeholders when dealing with vulnerable populations under the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.  20 awareness-raising videos were launched mid-April 2020, featuring prominent ethicists, philosophers, and medical scientists from the Southern Africa region and from the world. Each of videos raises essential ethical questions that shall be constantly guiding decision-makers, healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers, but also the media.

These materials aim to advise the decision makers and professionals in addressing the COVID-19 responses and recovery, based on the recommendations of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).

“Ethics is a discipline that dissects, unpacks, and analyses our reality and facts by confronting them to moral principles. And when we apply ethical reflection to the living, we call it Bio-Ethics. Ethics and Bio-ethics help us to be fair, right, and responsible. So in times of pandemics, there are at least three reasons why ethics is key. First, a social reason. Pandemics threaten human life and require stiff political decisions that may infringe on human dignity. So the question is – while we save lives by all means, how can/must we also save the dignity of all lives when taking measures for the whole society? Have we taken care of the most vulnerable, even though they are not (yet) sick, but can suffer from the stiff containment measures?”

Secondly according to Chanthalangsy, there must be political reason when dealing with persons with disabilities since pandemics require urgent measures and actions. “Decision-making must be very fast. So the question is – How can we act fast and efficiently, and at the same time listen to all stakeholders, be transparent, fair, and proportionate? How can emergency be accompanied by public reasoning?

‘’Thirdly, a scientific reason. This novel Corona Virus is not known by science, and has no cure. So how do we act to save lives, when we are in a situation of scientific uncertainties? And also, researchers and pharmaceutical firms are now in a rush to test and find new cure. So how do we make sure that clinical tests will not harm any population, no matter their social, economic, or racial conditions?’’

He added that in all these highly complex issues, Ethics is key to pose the right questions, and bring in plural and interdisciplinary perspectives to assist decision-makers.

“UNESCO has an explicit mandate to support nations deliver the “intellectual and moral solidarity” among peoples. This means that UNESCO has the task of making sure that whatever we as humans do, we do it out of mature intellectual reflection, and strong moral judgement.

“’This should ensure that our societies achieve and protect justice, freedom, and rights of all. In a word, ethics is right at the core of UNESCO’s mandate and work. So naturally, we have a longstanding record on formulating ethical normative frameworks globally,” he said.

The 2005 Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights for instance,  is one of the ethical outlines that have been put in place by UNESCO on a global scale for the first time and declares that all decisions and research on the living must strictly abide by the fundamental dignity of the human kind.

And when the COVID-19 pandemic affects the globe, UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC), and the UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST) issued a very strong Official Statement on the 26 of March 2020, to provide ethical guidance and standards to governments and all involved actors.’’

“I can summarize the key messages around 4 open-ended ideas: First, in as much as this crisis is a health crisis, it also affects all aspects of all individuals. Thus, we have to listen to everyone, include every concerns, and pay a very close attention to the most vulnerable among us – persons with disabilities, poor and disenfranchised communities, the elderlies, people with mental illnesses, etc. So the principle of Solidarity has to prevail.

“Secondly, our communication must be objective, scientific, and transparent. In times of crisis like this one, fear and anxiety, mistrust, fake news, and political discords are dangerous threats for the community. So decision makers and each citizen have the duty to apply the principles of Integrity and Responsibility in the way we communicate.  Thirdly, law enforcement and exceptional measures that are taken to contain the virus and to trace contacts, must be proportionate, and must not infringe on basic and fundamental human rights and human dignity of individuals. The principles of Dignity and of Autonomy of all humans must be upheld.”

Fourthly, scientific research and clinical trials, even in an emergency situation, must not preclude the regular and basic ethical protocols in place. The scientific review process can be accelerated, but the principles of Free and Informed Consent and Do-no-Harm must be imperative.

Mr Chanthalangsy added that COVID-19 will impact persons with disabilities more significantly, and the impact can be mitigated if the advocates speak up strongly and key stakeholders take appropriate actions and protective measures. While numerous efforts have been made to urgently share information to all people, there is limited and in other cases no information being produced in accessible formats for persons with disabilities.

This therefore contradicts the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that calls on States Parties to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk” (art.11).’’

“The International Disability Alliance (IDA) therefore strongly encourage that Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (DPOs) should play a key role in advocating for disability-inclusive response to the COVID19 crisis. Persons with disabilities remain a commonly “invisible” left behind population group, and this is vulnerability and marginalization are much more accentuated in times of emergency and pandemics.”



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