COVID Blog: How the COVID-19 Pandemic has Exacerbated Pre-Existing Ableism & Difficulties in India

By Arundhati Nath

India is the second-most populous country in the world with more than 1.3 billion people. According to the latest census conducted by the Government of India in 2011, only 26.8 million people with disabilities live in India. This is a mere 2.23% of the total population of the country, which is a hugely underestimated number. The World Report on Disabilities published by the World Health Organization mentions that around 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.  

“At present, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD), 2016 recognizes 21 categories of disabilities, which include blood disorders, acid attack victims and several other disabilities. If we count everybody in, even a very modest estimate of disabled Indians would be 10% of the total population, if not more,” says Arman Ali, renowned Indian disability rights activist and Executive Director of National Council for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

The majority of India’s disabled population is facing huge adversity owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Disability is often still seen as a curse in India and the needs of people with disabilities do not receive the mainstream attention that they rightly deserve. 

Locked Down and Left Behind is a recent report published by NCPEDP, summarizing the first hand, real-life experiences of disabled Indians during the pandemic. It has found that a staggering 73% of disabled Indians are facing severe hardship during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. 

“The basic requirements like procurement of food, medicines, and the ability to go from one place to another or get help have become very difficult for [disabled people]. People have lost jobs and livelihood options leading to a huge financial crunch,” Arman says. 

Many people with disabilities have more than one disability, including conditions like diabetes or hypertension. People with these disabilities have been impacted by the interruption in medical support services, like the collection of blood samples from home, which has been stopped due to the lockdown. There is a huge drop in the supply of blood in blood banks, affecting blood transfusions for thalassemia patients.

People with disabilities who regularly need catheters, caregiver support, cotton wool, urine bags, bandages, medicines, assistive devices, and medical care were badly affected. Lack of funds and the inability to physically travel to get these items due to the lockdown have made life very difficult and even dangerous for disabled Indians. 

As most disabled Indians work in the unorganized sector, their sources of income have completely ceased to exist during the lockdown. Some are the only breadwinners for their families, and often support elderly parents or other disabled siblings or spouses. 

A disabled Indian who was a respondent to the survey conducted by NCPEDP, said, “I’m a person with a disability and my income is Rs 750.00 (10.01 US$) per month. Though this is a small amount, I was able to earn more through commissions. But now that my office is closed, I have no source of income.”

Disabled people are always more impacted by discrimination, violence, abandonment, and abuse as they are often denied the tools, accommodations, and trust they would need to defend themselves, which leads to psychological stress and mental health problems. This is showing up in fear and violence in relation to the coronavirus as well. For instance, a family in the city of Raipur deserted a deaf-mute person by admitting him to a hospital for coronavirus symptons, furnishing a false residential address and contact number. In the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, a man killed his 48-year-old disabled son during a heated argument over the son’s refusal to wear a face mask. 

According to the report published by the NCPEDP, although some states of the country like Nagaland, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, New Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka have taken some steps to help the disabled population in a few ways, there’s a lot more that needs to be done. 

“I think people with disabilities are the worst affected during the pandemic and the fact that there’s no focus on collecting information during any such disaster, makes the situation more difficult. We have no clue how many people with disabilities are tested COVID-19 positive, are in quarantine, or have died. There’s not even a dedicated and accessible national helpline for the disabled during this pandemic. In a situation where [people with disabilities] should have been treated as a priority, they’ve been forgotten, which is unfortunate” Arman says.

Links to articles and sites referenced, in order of appearance:

United States Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau Current Population.

Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India; Measurement of Disability through Census. 2011.

Hindustan Times; India’s disabled must have a fighting chance to achieve whatever they want. June 5, 2017.

World Health Organization; World Report on Disabilities. 2011.

The Government of India; The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.

National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) website.

National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP); Locked Down and Left Behind. 2020.

The Print; Study finds 73% persons with disabilities facing severe difficulties during lockdown in India, by Revathi Krishnan. May 22, 2020.

Times of India; Family deserts deaf-mute as ‘corona patient’, by Cherrupreet Kaur. April 2, 2020.

Hindustan Times; Man kills 48-yr-old physically challenged son after he refuses to wear face mask. April 19, 2020.

About the Author:

Author photo of Arundhati Nath, an Indian woman with shoulder length black hair. She is wearing a bright patterned shirt.

Arundhati Nath is a full-time, visually impaired freelance journalist and children’s author from Guwahati in Northeast India. She writes about disability and human rights, development, women’s issues, healthcare, culture, the environment, wildlife and conservation. She has been published in The Guardian, CSMonitor, Aljazeera English, BBC Wildlife, South China Morning Post, Reader’s Digest and several others. 

Arundhati can be reached at natharundhati@gmail.com and her work can be viewed online at her website, www.arundhatinath.com.

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