COVID-19 severely affects persons with disabilities in Malawi: UNESCO Report

From August to November 20220, UNESCO undertook a Rapid Impact Assessment on COVID-19 on Persons with Disabilities in Malawi. Persons with disabilities and representatives from Organisations that represent them were the primary research population targeted by the assessment. Their views and stories form the core of the findings, highlighting the particular difficulties they have been facing since the outbreak of the pandemic. Most respondents with disabilities reported they feel more at risk of contracting COVID-19 compared to those without disabilities.

The study findings confirmed the hypothesis that the wellbeing of persons with disabilities has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown measures, as stated by the United Nations Policy Brief -A Disability Inclusive Response to COVID-19, released in May 2020. The containment regulations have caused disruptions in the livelihoods of persons with disabilities because their main sources of livelihoods are piece works and small-scale businesses. The proportion of respondents who have meals three times a day decreased significantly from 40% before the COVUD-19 pandemic to 13% during the pandemic, while those who used to have only one meal per day increased from 5% to 27%. 

I reduced the meal frequency due to reduced income and getting other food materials has been difficult during this COVID-19 period.
Machinga, Male informant with hearing impairment

Almost all informants accessed health services from public facilities where services were free. During COVID-19, persons with disabilities experience challenges including long distances to health facilities, shortage of medicines including sunscreen lotions and failure to pay for services at private facilities, lack of personal assistants especially for visually impaired persons and the lack of effective communication between health workers and persons with hearing impairments. Some informants stopped going to health facilities for fear of contracting COVID-19. 

Government should have a policy to allow persons with disabilities not to stay in the queue for long.
21-25-year-old female informant with visual impairment

During the school closure in March 2020, while online classes were available for some, access to those who require sign language, braille, or other accessible formats was not available. Even radio lessons left out many persons with hearing impairments, while access to internet was hampered by lack of money and equipment. The pandemic has shown glaring gaps in inclusive education, and has heightened the intersectional discrimination between disabilities, poverty, and geographical marginalization. 

Some children with disabilities have special needs which need special assistance, but the closure of these schools means that their special assistance cannot be given at home or through the radio programmes.
Nsanje - Male informant with albinism

Malawi developed the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan in early 2020 to guide the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the respondents interviewed, 38% of the respondents were aware of the national COVID-19 response plan. Of the respondents who knew about the response plan, only 12% reported that they were consulted when the plan was being prepared. Nevertheless, there is no systemic mechanism to include persons with disabilities and their representative organizations in the implementation and monitoring of the National Plan, which is a major gap to ensure proper disability inclusion. 

There should be representation by a person with a disability or someone with adequate knowledge about disability on the national planning and program implementation level so that he/she can provide ongoing advice on inclusive planning and programming that take cognizance of specific needs of persons with various disabilities.
Key informant, Malawi Union of the Blind

70%  of the respondents reported that they had ever received information on COVID-19. 72% received the information in audio format, while only 6% of the respondents reported they received information in braille, 9% in picture format and only 2% reported receiving such information through sign language. 46% of the respondents reported that this information on COVID-19 was being received by informants frequently, 14% said periodically while the rest (26%) reported that they received such information haphazardly. 95% of the respondents who ever received COVID-19 information were of the view that this information was very useful because they learnt how to protect themselves against COVID-19. 

While a few informants in this study experienced violence, at national level the number of teenage pregnancies and child marriages significantly increased during the COVID-19 as reported earlier. A recent assessment found that during COVID-19 between March and July 2020 Malawi had 44,178 teenage pregnancies while there were 20,109 child marriages, which represented a significant increase compared to 2019.

UNESCO conducted this Impact Assessment under the Social and Human Sciences Programme, and the Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future (O3) Programme that benefits from the generous financial support of the Governments of Sweden, and Ireland. The Assessment was also made possible through  the technical support and advice of the UN Partnership for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) Technical Secretariat. The study was conducted in six districts: Mzimba and Nkhata Bay in the North, Dowa and Ntchisi in the Centre, and Machinga and Nsanje in the South, as well as in Blantyre and Lilongwe.

Most personal guides are no longer willing to guide persons with visual impairment so that they can move around to engage in their day-to-day work. The guides are fearful of contracting the virus. This has tended to confine most persons with visual impairments at home leading to low self-esteem.
Key informant, Malawi Union of the Blind

The Assessment report provides recommendations in the immediate and mid-terms, while also proposing a typology of needs and caution per disability type, to facilitate public understanding of the reality and assist decision makers in their response planning. Depending on the type of disabilities, the respondents expressed different fears and needs, which require specific attention from the various stakeholders. 

Access the full report here.