Cameroon - Covid-19 Worsens Pre-Existing Vulnerabilities for Some

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Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, persons living with disabilities in Cameroon had a peculiar problem - they lacked adequate social support and service delivery. Then, the coronavirus emerged and compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for them.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon, according to the Club for Young Rehabilitated Blind People (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Rehabilités du Cameroun- CJARC). The most common forms of disabilities are orthopaedic problems, infectious diseases and neurological disabilities. A 2017 study found out that the principal causes of disability were trauma due to traffic accidents and inappropriate medical interventions. These could partly be attributed to poor government policies over the years, as well as family neglect.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon.

Yet given the economic hardship orchestrated by the pandemic, and less-than-adequate government social support for the poor, life has become especially difficult for many persons living with disabilities. There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

After Cameroon recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on 6 March 2020, the government issued a set of guidelines. It made the wearing of masks in public mandatory, limited the number of people in gatherings to 50, employed physical distancing, reduced the number of people in a bus or taxi per time, and ordered bars, restaurants and other leisure spots to stop operations by 6pm, among other measures. But these regulations aimed at influencing social interactions to limit the spread of the virus have yet to be properly communicated to persons living with disabilities.

There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

SisterSpeak237, a local civil society organisation which seeks to represent the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, has chronicled complaints of neglect experienced by persons with disabilities during this pandemic. Many people around the country are donating Covid-19 care packs, including buckets, soaps, and food items, according to Comfort Mussa, founder and executive director of SisterSpeak237. But in many cases, people donate what they think is needed, and it often seems that what is most important to them is to be seen donating, she says.

Moreover, the resources appropriate to helping people with disabilities are often very limited, says Mussa. The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches. And disabled people often also need exemption from some pandemic-related restrictions, such as the requirement of physical distancing, since they need caregivers.

The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches.

The government, through the various ministerial departments and agencies does send out communications and announcements about intervention and prevention measures.

On 30 April, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute announced some measures to address the impact of the coronavirus on households. These included: an increase in family allowance from XAF 2,800 to XAF 4,500; a raise of 20% for pensions that did not benefit from a 2016 reform; continued payment of family allowances from May to July to staff of companies which are unable to pay social security contributions or which have placed their staff on technical leave due to the crisis; spreading citizens' payments of social security contributions for the second quarter over three instalments; and canceling late fees for payment of social security contributions.

The government has asked citizens to observe physical distancing, mandatorily wear face masks in public and frequently wash or sanitise their hands, amongst other measures to contain the spread of the virus. But these preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state. It is also often difficult for people to respect these restrictive measures when their priority is simply survival.

Preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state.

But these communications do not reach everybody, Mussa told Africa in Fact. Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. "There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges," Mussa said. Sign language interpretation is provided on national TV, but it is only in French, which sidelines English-language speakers. The country is officially bilingual.

"People like us [hearing- or speech-impaired] are confused about what is happening. Preventive measures are not communicated to us [using adapted tools]," Njei Nelly Anne told NewsWatch newspaper based in the capital Yaounde, through a sign language interpreter.

The government's interventions aimed at supporting the economy are limited to the 10% of the population which has employment in the formal sector. The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief. Unlike Rwanda and Tunisia, which have offered relief packages to their most vulnerable, Cameroon has yet to do so. However, the government has said it will work out a comprehensive global response plan with additional measures to alleviate the socio-economic impact on affected firms and households. But since April, the said plan is still being awaited.

Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. "There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges," Mussa said.

Meanwhile, the three million Cameroonians with disabilities are left without information, or measures to alleviate their plight. The UN points out that persons with disabilities generally have more healthcare needs than others and are therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others. The world body says this applies to both their "standard needs" and "needs linked to impairments", which presumably means that they suffer disadvantage both with regard to their ordinary needs, such as access to food, housing and education, and with regard to their special needs, such as special access facilities and appropriate means of communication.

As it is, Cameroon's response to the social conditions of the general populace has been wanting in significance and impact.

The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief.

Since the response was made, the spread of the virus has been consistently on the rise. By 28 July 2020, Cameroon had 17,110 confirmed coronavirus cases, with close to 400 deaths. This accounts for about 2% of cases in Africa, according to a report published on 27 July 2020 by EXX Africa. This trend is likely due to the easing of restrictions, which have given people a false sense of security.

Yet the country's approach to dealing with the fairly large sector of the population who have special needs has been even worse. The UN has called on governments to ensure the rights of disabled people through a range of measures, including strengthening healthcare policy, providing appropriate access to healthcare facilities for the disabled, improving funding and training healthcare staff. But so far, the government has yet to extend any special social assistance to this special group of people.

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

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