What does poverty mean for disabled people in the era of COVID-19?

In my previous blog post I have discussed how COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to benefit from the local development approaches within lower and middle-income countries. These countries’ poverty, health, and other development challenges negatively affected the application of the human rights approach. As a consequence, civil community found itself in a position of establishing programmes and initiatives to compensate for the government’s failure to respond to minority groups’ rights. They have relied on Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR), the twin-track approach and other inclusive local development approaches to decrease disabled people’s social exclusion. The community initiatives and local disability action plans that they suggested managed to increase people with disability’s access to a variety of services.

In this blog post, I will argue that even with such progress, along with governments’ announced strategies in response to SDGs, people with disability will face further marginalization due to the influence of COVID-19 on economies. According to my informal discussions with some of my disabled activist colleagues, they are no longer satisfied with the benefits that they are receive from government, especially in the framework of the higher unemployment rate and the cessation of school meals which was the only channel of support from some families living in rural areas. This means that the economic consequences of COVID-19 expose the most vulnerable and excluded members of society, as has been the case with previous economic crises.  One reason for this is that COVID-19 will result in the prioritising of funds which may be at the expense of development programs designed to support the inclusion of people with disability.

My lived and working experience with government and DPOs in Egypt and other Arab countries reinforces for me the essential correlation between poverty and people with disability’s exclusion and deprivation to receive appropriate support at the district level. It is also behind the associated stigma within their communities. The lockdown and self-isolation strategies followed by some countries may cause an additional 8.3 million people to fall into poverty according to ESCWA, 2020. I feel that Adam Parsons’ argument in his April 10th  Counterpunch article about us “all be[ing] in this together” but experiences of lockdown having very different effects depending on “one’s position and place in society” is borne out from my own experience and that of those I have consulted. They are not able to receive their regular medical support as before and this is compounded by difficulties being supported by those close to them as fear of infection leads to barriers even in communication. The question – as Parsons himself says – is “will COVID-19 spur a people’s bailout for the world’s poorest?” Recent experience, including recent US withdrawal of WHO funding, suggests this may not be the case.

Economically speaking, and as a response to COVID-19, governments are offering benefits to support the most vulnerable groups including those who are unemployed and also the self-employed who are unable to work, although with variations. In the Global South, some governments have provided financial support but this has been viewed as minimal by those who are self-employed (I will come back to the subject of employment in my next blog post). As a consequence, many continue to go out to work despite the risks. Knowing that people with disability are the poorest of the poor and 80% of them live in the majority world exacerbates this challenge for the families with disabled individuals. In the UK, and similar to other European governments, it has been decided to provide an average of 80% of the monthly salary to compensate for those furloughed from their work (similar initiatives have been proposed for the self-employed). This has been largely met with satisfaction from the population. It is unclear, as of the current moment, as to how much of this financial support has been implemented. Regardless, such a programme will have an impact on contingency resources available for other purposes and will force NGOs to pick up the slack. The scary issue is that stopping the current benefits and social protection schemes to ameliorate the current difficulties may make the situation harder for people who have become dependent upon them. Despite the fact that COVID-19 is an important cause for poverty, permanent measures should be taken to eradicate the poverty itself beyond any specific pandemic. This needs to be considered as part of any exit strategy.

Beyond the exit strategy?

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a variety of reports and other statistical information illustrating its economic, social, and health impact. Considerations, however, of potential exit strategies that will eradicate these effects going forward into the future, are yet to be fully developed. These may include redirection of funds, tweaking the current responses to the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate the new challenges created by COVID-19, or – as ESCWA have recently suggested (April 2020) – “Enhancing social protection by extending the coverage of existing schemes, including cash transfers, food aid, unemployment benefits and paid sick leave protection, for an interim period of three to six months to support the poor and vulnerable”.

In conclusion, I am optimistic that the post COVID-19 era will witness more consideration to minority groups’ rights within development from international organisations. They may do this as a response to the lack of funding and priority that may be given to those groups from governments due to their focus on other economic and health demands.

For more information, see the ESCWA 2020 report at: https://reliefweb.int/report/bahrain/mitigating-impact-covid-19-poverty-and-food-insecurity-arab-region

Adam Parsons’ article is available at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/04/10/will-covid-19-spur-a-peoples-bailout-for-the-worlds-poorest/covid-19-4966155_1920

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