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I am indigenous, a woman and living with a disability. COVID-19 highlights the intersectional discrimination I face daily.

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Christine Kandie is a representative of the Endorois community. She champions women’s land rights and the rights of persons with disabilities. (Photo: Christine at an indigenous leaders training in the territories of Sarayaku, South America.)

I remember a time, at an early tender age, when my father’s daughters were to be married off. For us to be married we had to be cut, and my father had cautiously asked me about my personal opinion on the matter. Should I go for the cut like my sisters?

While I was responding to him, some of my sisters laughed at me and said, “Surely Christine, it is more obvious for you to stay back at home because nobody could marry you.” For them, nobody would marry me since my physical disability could not attract any man for marriage. For me to avoid feeling ashamed and humiliated, they advised that I stay at home. For sure this prompted my father to consider taking me to live with relatives who had a home closer to my school. I ended up moving in with them and for this reason, I continued with my education.

I am sharing this story to explain how for a long time, people with disabilities in my community, the Endorois of Kenya, have been double marginalized. Make that person a woman and the marginalization triples.

 

COVID-19 preparedness among persons with disabilities

Christine walking alongside a lake with flamingos.

Persons with disabilities (PWDs) are one of the groups most vulnerable and largely disadvantaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to World Health Organization (WHO), for example, PWDs are more likely to touch surfaces to support themselves. Others may also require the support of another person and thus are not able to maintain social distancing. Further, they may require frequent medication and with the current situation, where most of the medical effort is focused on COVID-19, there is limited attention on this specific group.

Persons living with disabilities within the Endorois community in Kenya are facing several challenges which have minimally, if at all, been addressed by the authorities. The public awareness measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been less considerate to the needs of PWDs in my community, along with other indigenous and minority communities of Kenya’s Baringo County. The aspect of social distancing is unfavorable to persons who need close support for their daily living, such as the blind and those who require wheelchair support. Access to healthcare services for PWDs has also been largely affected as a result of most health facilities now focusing on preparedness for COVID-19. Access to food and various social needs are also paralyzed since markets and any form of social gathering have been banned as a way of combatting the spread of coronavirus.

 

Climate change and conflict – two catalysts for disaster

Christine while raising awareness about COVID-19 to her rural communities.

As the representative of persons with differing abilities in my community, I have been trying to bring these issues to the attention of our county government, and explaining the urgent need for public awareness campaigns on COVID-19 that have special considerations for PWDs. However, there are two other key issues that are also putting us at greater risk:

1) Floods: Climate change has increased water levels of the Great Rift Valley lakes, including Bogoria lake. Flooding towards south of Bogoria lake, an area largely occupied by the Endorois community, has been ongoing since 2014 and increasing each year. On top of the risks posed by COVID-19, people living around Bogoria lake also have to deal with seeking refuge due to this worsened flooding. Among this group of people, life is even more difficult for those living with a disability since they may not have access to the extra support they require to seek safe refuge. Moreover, earlier this year, the water level rose so much that it submerged a health center in Loboi (another area where the Endorois community resides). Our community cultural center has been converted into health center for short period of three months as the government plans to buy land and build another one.

2) Cattle rustling: Cattle rustling (or raiding) has been occurring for the past 15 years. What happens is aggressors from Pokot, a neighboring community, invade people living in our locations and steal livestock, killing anyone in their way. Amidst an already dire situation posed by COVID-19, the insecurity caused by cattle rustling is paralyzing efforts to reduce the spread of the virus. Families fleeing from the violence are seeking refuge in schools and other social facilities, mostly in groups. In this situation, the risk of COVID-19 spreading increases significantly because social distancing and proper sanitization practices like hand washing are not adequately adhered to. In these situations, PWDs suffer even more since their ability to access food is slimmer, leaving them predisposed to malnutrition and other health conditions.

 

Ways forward in times of COVID-19

There is a dire need for health promotion programs to develop messaging tailored to PWDs, so that they can also play an active role in preventing the spread of the virus. The programs should be designed to meet the various needs for the different types of disability. There is also a need to seek suitable alternative shelter for persons living with disabilities who have been displaced either by floods or insecurity.

Additionally, the national and county government as well as other well-wishers should support PWDs by providing them with masks and food. This would ensure that they do not have to move around in order to access basic needs. This will allow them to access medical attention to sustain their livelihood without being exposed to the risk of contracting COVID-19. In the situation of a person with disability diagnosed with COVID-19, they should also be offered special quarantine that also accommodates their underlying conditions.

The health and human rights of indigenous people living with disabilities can no longer go ignored. The challenges we face, including isolation from the development agenda, existed long before COVID-19 entered our lives. However, this virus is making the discrimination we face daily even clearer. It is time to treat us as equals and with the respect we deserve.

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