Hunger is often discussed by the government as a concern for the citizens in the current pandemic, and it should be. Any policy, whether of gradual opening up or of a lockdown with government provided emergency access, should ensure that no one in the country is hungry. This should not be up for debate.
That said, if the government’s policy and thinking starts and ends only with access to food, it will invariably leave some highly vulnerable groups behind. One group in particular that has been historically excluded and stigmatised is people with special needs.
In Pakistan, there are millions of citizens with special needs. Estimates range from four million to over 10 million. For these individuals, accessing basic services are difficult even in the best of circumstances. Our infrastructure is incapable of providing equitable access to health and education and other fundamental services to those who are differently abled and may require additional support. Disability in Pakistan often results in exclusion from economic opportunity and increases the likelihood of poverty and poor health outcomes. Worse, society is often cruel in its treatment of those with special needs, whether the needs are of physical or mental health. The current pandemic is taking a serious toll on mental health of millions around the world, individuals with special needs are even more vulnerable. Anxiety, depression, uncertainty, loss of a caring community and a sense of tremendous loss can have a lasting negative impact on their physical and mental health which is already in need of extra care and support. The impact on those who are unable to reach the sites where the government is providing food and other provisions, on those who have lost work or are forced out of schooling because our systems are incapable of accommodating special needs students, is profound. They may also have additional needs for accessing health services, pharmacies and physical therapy.
What is needed is a two-pronged approach. First, a clear recognition from the government that these individuals are not on the margins of society. They are as much a part of society as anyone else. Words matter — a clear statement from those in power, that people with special needs will be taken care of, is an important first step towards inclusion. The second is specific policies that are both top down and bottom up. We have to recognise that some of these individuals may not be able to come to the centers where cash and provisions are being distributed, or may not have ID cards, or are unable to reach health providers for testing and care. Specific provisions towards these individuals are needed — not only because this is the right thing to do but because this is what the law is. There are strong examples from countries across the world (e.g. Turkey and Jordan) that have created local support mechanisms for those with special needs. The approach rests on strong government commitment, a plan to engage local community and execution that is free from bias, or a sense of pity. In Pakistan, we have to demonstrate the will and commitment to protect special-needs citizens. The Ehsaas programme has created a strong foundation, and if engaged with local community through neighbours and localities, can make a difference. But also have to ensure that the food and cash support is complimented by mental health and psycho-social support that is built upon the pillars of dignity and full inclusion.
Doing the right thing does not mean doing anyone a favour or having pity on a group. It only means that we strive to live up to the core values of humanity and dignity.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2020.
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