Bong County – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the world, disabled people in Bong County, Liberia are also feeling the impact.
Before the outbreak, people with disability in the central Liberian county were already heavily challenged: getting daily bread and accessing quality healthcare services were on top of a list of difficulties they endured.
Now, they are finding it even more problematic to make ends meet as the government tightens enforcement of the State of Emergency that includes a lockdown that prohibits people from staying on the streets after 3 pm.
Feeling the Pinch
Joe T. Kollie, 42, is a disabled man who relied on alms from family and friends. With the pandemic impacting everyone’s source of income, Kollie is now left to fend for himself.
“So for now, the only thing that I do in order to get my daily bread is selling charcoal and cold water at my house,” said the former elementary school teacher.
“Even organizations that sometimes help us are complaining that there’s no money. So, I am very afraid because, God forbid, when I contract this deadly disease where do I go?”
And with the pandemic already presenting massive challenge for the country’s economy, the physically challenged community is one of the hardest hit.
“Even organizations that sometimes help us are complaining that there’s no money. So, I am very afraid because, God forbid, when I contract this deadly disease where do I go?” – Joe T. Kollie, Physically Challenged Man
Praise Mulbah, 32, is another of Bong County resident living with a disability – having lost her ability to walk at 12, after a childhood battle with polio. As a mother of two, she says the pandemic “brings hardship and has denied my family some opportunities”.
Two years ago, Praise lost her partner at the Phebe Hospital because the couple could not afford to pay for necessary medical treatment. She’s now struggling to cater for her two children.
The immigration process that would have seen her daughter adopted by her uncle and moved to the United States has also been delayed.
“He [my uncle] promised to carry my daughter to the States, but in some part of March he called me and told me that the girl will not be going because of the coronavirus,” she said.
“Not just carrying my daughter to America, but some of the supports that were coming to me are no longer coming as well.”
Praise now relies on producing and selling laundry soap to provide for her household, but she’s afraid that “many disabled people will suffer the worst if the health crisis continues” for the next couple of months.
Austin Dolo, 58, is a physically challenged father of four. He and his wife have a market stall in their community – selling food items. Their customers are the neighbors, who can rarely purchase these days.
“Business is not going well like before,” Dolo said. “Most of the people want to buy but there’s no money”.
With low sales, the Dolos are also finding it difficult to put food on the table.
Many people living with disabilities in Bong County are not only worried about finding their daily bread, but also the fear of contracting COVID-19. How will they receive treatment if they are sick?
There are over 5,000 people living with disability in Bong County, according to the Bong County chapter of the National Union Organizations for Disabled (NUOD).
Arthur Bondo, NOUD’s Bong County Coordinator, said members of the community depend on handouts from either family members or goodwill individuals. He said physically challenged people are some of the most vulnerable during this pandemic.
Unequal Health Care Service
Bondo’s comment echoes the ultimate concerns of members of the community who claim they are often denied medical care at health facilities in the county.
“Even when someone [disabled] gets sick at this time, before they leave their home and rush to hospital or clinic, crawling on their knees or in wheelchairs, the 3pm curfew will catch up with them,” Bondo said.
“Some of them even managed to get to some health facility where nurses, at time, treat them like animals. They don’t respect them or even protect their rights as citizens of the country.”
Bondo said the Union has now turned to charity organizations and good-will individuals for “urgent intervention”.
Josephine Daniel, a resident of the Phebe Airstrip Community who is physically challenged, said her last experience at the hospital in March this year saw her treated “with less care by nurses”.
“I went for common malaria and fever treatment but the hospital couldn’t give me drugs, and the worst part of it was that nurses were busy playing with their phones and chatting with friends,” she recalled.
Lawrence Tokpa, spokesperson for the visually impaired community — Christian Association of the Blind Bong County’s chapter — supports Mr. Bondo’s assertion.
He’s urging the county administration to ensure persons living with disabilities have “easy access” to health facilities across the county. Tokpa suggests the setting up of an emergency ward at all health facilities.
This will allow disabled persons to get special attention, he said.
“If we have a particular area or ward at Phebe [hospital] or C. B. Dunbar hospital, for example, where nurses will be assigned to cater to us [disabled], I think it will reduce some of the difficulties or problems we go through in getting treatment,” he said.
“We are very afraid because if this COVID-19 disease affects one of us [disabled people], it will likely extend to other members of the communities.”
In 2012, Liberia signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as other treaties that protect the rights of people with disabilities.
Article 25 of the Convention reads: “States Parties recognize that persons with disabilities have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure access for persons with disabilities to health services that are gender-sensitive, including health-related rehabilitation …”
The Convention, amongst other things, calls for health services to be available as “close as possible” to disabled communities, including in rural areas; it requires that health professionals provide care of the same quality to persons with disabilities as to others; it prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in the provision of health insurance, and life insurance; and it prevents discriminatory denial of health care or health services or food and fluids on the basis of disability.
“If we have a particular area or ward at Phebe [hospital] or C. B. Dunbar hospital, for example, where nurses will be assigned to cater to us [disabled], I think it will reduce some of the difficulties or problems we go through in getting treatment.” – Lawrence Tokpa, spokesperson for the visually impaired community in Bong County
Despite being signatory to these international protocols, people with disability struggle for basic needs like access to health care and education in Liberia.
Jonah Tokpah, the administrator of the County Health team, agrees that the concerns of the disabled community are valid.
“I strongly believe that persons living with disabilities across the county are to be provided the same healthcare. They must be treated like any other persons, no matter what,” Tokpah said.
“I want to use this medium to call on all of you, our health workers across the length and berth of this great county to pay more attention to persons living with disabilities in this fight against COVID-19.”
Will Health Centers Heed?
Dr. Jefferson Sibley, Medical Director of Phebe Hospital — a major referral health facility in the county — said he has instructed nurses to give preference to persons living with disabilities.
“In this critical time, they have been given some more attention as compared to before,” Dr. Sibley said.
“When a visually impaired or blind person comes, for example, to seek treatment, our nurses assist them, especially taking them from one room to another to get their treatment.”
And Thomas F. Kpelewah, Medical Director of the C. B. Dunbar Hospital, added that even though the hospital is experiencing difficulties, persons living with disabilities need to be given the “best attention during this pandemic in Liberia”.
“When a visually impaired or blind person comes, for example, to seek treatment, our nurses assist them, especially taking them from one room to another to get their treatment.” – Dr. Jefferson Sibley, Medical Director of Phebe Hospital
At the Bong Mine hospital, the administration says the hospital has instituted measures to help alleviate some of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities.
Dr. Obiazi Francis said the hospital has set up a “special room” where disabled people are treated.
“That room has only being used to check or treat our brothers and sisters during this crisis in our country. That portion of the building or hospital is disabled-friendly – whether you crawl or ride in wheelchairs, you won’t experience so much difficulties like before,” he said.
“We are prioritizing these groups because they are the most vulnerable. From now on they will be treated as long as we have the needed drugs, no matter what time they come.”