Liberia: 'We Are Abandoned' - People With Disabilities Decry Economic Hardship Amid Covid-19 Outbreak

Monrovia — Members of the disabled community are reeling from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic country and how it is severely affecting their lives and those of members of their households.

A group of physically challenged Liberians said their situation is worsening by the fact that no level of assistance has been coming their way, especially since the outbreak of the virus in Liberia.

Many members of the community who survive through the soliciting of alms at street corners are facing the severe economic impacts of the outbreak as they are no longer allowed to go about their normal businesses.

With the restriction of movement and assembly, no help seems to be coming forth from the national government and, according to leaders of the disabled community, the lack of support is putting disabled people in a precarious situation.

"Life is becoming too unbearable for us. We have no means to survive now and the stimulus package the government promised is yet to reach us," Mary Jimmy, a physically challenged woman bound in a wheelchair in the Coconut Plantation Community in Central Monrovia said.

Mary, a mother of four, says she is finding it difficult to meet the daily needs of her and her children.

The house in which Ms. Jimmy lives is also in deplorable condition as the roof of the building experiences regular leakages.

She says that she does not have money to recondition it as she is not working and only depend on goodwill from friends and well-wishers.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Mary's main source of income was seeking alms at street corners but she stopped going out due to the initial lockdown restrictions.

She said the COVID pandemic disrupted what she called her daily hustle for survival and to feed her children because she and many other disabled were prevented from street paddling for daily bread.

The lack of support to people living with disabilities is gravely affecting their lives and their livelihoods that they have no reliable means of survival, she said.

The Legislature approved a US$25 million stimulus package to provide food for vulnerable people like Mary. The fund was also meant to offer loans to vulnerable traders, and pay utility bills for some households, among other things.

The stimulus package was President George Weah and his government's response with an anticipated outcome containing the further spread of the virus and work to return the country to normalcy. But many think the exercise was a failure considering the manner in which the COVID-19 National Steering Committee and the World Food Program (WFP) went about it. Many disabled complained that they are yet to receive rations.

"We have been abandoned, and there is a need for assistance," she said.

As a disabled, Mary has to buy water to bathe, cook- when it is available, wash and drink, even though she is not working and has no source of income.

"My two children are no longer going to school because I do not have support," she said while lamenting the lack of disabled-friendly facilities like latrines for them in communities across the country--with the female members of the disabled community being the most affected.

WFP Head of Programs, Amos Ballayan, said last year that considering the set target, they [WFP] would be able to pick up the most vulnerable from among the vulnerable.

"There is no way we can do food distribution for 2.5 million people out of 5 million without targeting; it's that targeting approach that we used made some people to be qualified and some people do not," he said.

Like Mary, many other disabled people are yet to receive covid-19 stimulus package promised by the government almost a year ago.

Tarlue Thomas, also a wheelchair-bound man, is one of those.

He said the lack of water, better shelter and food are regular challenges he faces in his condition.

"Life is more difficult now due to the COVID-19 pandemic than it was before. I'm yet to receive any supply from the government as promised," Thomas said.

He frequently sought alms at street corners from passers-bye, but can no longer do so.

The National Union of Organizations for the Disabled is one of many vulnerable groups that should have benefitted from the stimulus package. Many slum dwellers have also complained of not receiving rations. Some residents of Monrovia and other parts of the country are practically still waiting for their rations, months after the relief effort had started. Others claimed unfair distribution of the relief assistance.

According to COVID-19 Household Food Supply Program Summary Report on Implementation prepared by the WFP, the program was intended to provide relief to 500,000 vulnerable households or 2.5 million people including welfare institutions and frontline workers. Each household was to receive 50kg rice, 10kg beans, and 4.5kg vegetable oil; an estimated total of 32,365 metric tons of food commodities.

The National Union of Organizations of the Disabled (NUOD), an advocacy group for disabled people, said a majority of its membership did not get the package.

The union consists of about forty disabled organizations operating in the 15-counties.

NUOD Vice Chairman for Administration, Pastor Peter Flomo, said the organization cannot cater to the well-being of its members because of lack of funding.

"We too are cash strapped. We are no longer receiving budgetary allotment from the government. This is making it difficult for the union to cater to its members," Flomo said in an interview.

He said NUOD is not in the National budget anyone.

Pastor Flomo noted that a few members of the group received the government's stimulus package, but items received were just drops in the ocean for them; not enough to sustain their lives during the lockdown.

"The pandemic has strangulated us and many of our people. Some of our people have even died due to the hardship, especially hunger and lack of access to medical services," he said.

These harsh realities faced by the disabled community contravene the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty of the United Nations intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.

Parties or countries that signed up to the Convention are required to promote, protect, and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy full equality under the law.

But this is not the case in Liberia. "We have been marginalized for decades. We are being looked down upon and we hardly have opportunities to improve our conditions," NUOD vice-Chair for Operations, Daniel Darbeh said.

He stressed the lack of job opportunities for persons living with disabilities is something that has now compounded with the outbreak of COVID-19.

Though the COVID-19 stimulus package committee admitted doing a poor job of delivering relief packages, blaming bad roads and other factors--it said that 2.5 million people were served. The report has since been greeted with a barrage of criticisms with many of the critics being top government officials, especially lawmakers.

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) through its Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in Partnership with Front Page Africa

Edward Tamba With Journalist for Human Rights

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