Coronavirus in Nepal a double threat for disabled people

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Rishi Dhakal is a peer counselor at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC) in Kavre District, which is the only dedicated health facility in Nepal for people with spinal cord injuries.

Dhakal, a wheelchair user, had been reporting to his office only seven days a month since March as per the SIRC's guidelines to limit staff presence in the building amid the pandemic.

After a security guard and a doctor at the facility tested positive for coronavirus within two days, the SIRC started conducting random tests on health workers, patients and caregivers at the hospital.

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At least 104 people, including Dhakal, five nurses, 36 spinal cord patients, 36 caregivers and nine health workers, tested positive for COVID-19, Dr. Raju Dhakal (no relation to Rishi), SIRC's managing director, told DW.

Rishi Dhakal is now staying in home isolation, but the rest are being treated at the SIRC itself due to a lack of facilities and isolation centers required for wheelchair users at other nearby hospitals.

Raju Dhakal is a specialist in rehabilitation medicine. He told DW that the security guard was likely the source of the infection at the facility as he had developed mild symptoms, but failed to recognize the disease on time and take precautionary measures.

The health center is now sealed and swab tests of all remaining health workers, patients, caregivers and staffers are being carried out, Dhakal said, adding he is worried that the number of COVID-19 infections at the facility could rise in the coming days.

The outbreak at SIRC demonstrates how people with disabilities are being exposed to the virus even when they are at a relatively secure health facility.

And hundreds of thousands of others with various types of disabilities living outside of facilities remain much more vulnerable to infection.

As of August 31, Nepal has recorded over 38,000 coronavirus cases and 221 deaths.

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Lack of proper data

There is no clear data on the number of people with disabilities in the Himalayan nation. The 2011 census reports a 1.94% disability rate in the country, but various studies suggest that the actual figure could be much higher.

Activists claim that up to 3 million Nepalese, or about 10% of the country's population, could be suffering from a range of disabilities.

The government recognizes 10 types of disabilities and divides them into four broad categories based on the severity of the disability.

As of now, about 700,000 people with various types of disabilities are recognized by the government and almost 60% of them have been issued special ID cards.

There's also a lack of data as to how many people with special needs have contracted COVID-19. Jageshwor Gautam, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, told DW that the number of infected people with disabilities is not clear.

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Disabled more vulnerable to COVID-19

Recently, a 65-year-old wheelchair user died in Nepal's southern Chitwan district, days after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He was admitted to a local hospital, which had no proper wheelchair user-friendly facilities.

Nepal's National Planning Commission released a report recently on the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on the country's population.

It highlights that people suffering from various types of disabilities, including sight and hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities and spinal cord injuries, are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus infection.

"The risk of infection is high among the disabled," Gajendra Budhathoki, a wheelchair user and campaigner for the causes of people with disabilities, told DW.

"Most people having various types of physical or mental disabilities have relatively low immunity power," he said.

"Many spinal cord injured have health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure as they can't exercise regularly. As they need physical support from people, there is a high risk of being infected with the virus," Budhathoki added.

Raju Basnet, the general secretary of the National Federation of Disabled Nepal, told DW the cases of COVID-19 infection among people with disabilities have increased in recent weeks, especially after the authorities eased lockdown restrictions on July 19.

On July 19, Nepal recorded 57 COVID-19 cases, but since then the infections have spiked considerably.

A recent report by the National Planning Commission report stresses the need for masks, gloves and medicine for some 40% of people with disabilities.

Budhathoki complained that they have not received any rescue and relief package from the government.

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Many disabled on their own

There is a lack of facilities for Nepal's disabled, despite the fact that the 2015 constitution ensured the rights of people with various disabilities.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a human rights activist, laments that people with disabilities feel helpless and abandoned during the pandemic.

"Even in normal times, people with disabilities feel neglected in Nepal. Not only is there a lack of governmental support, the civil society is also not discussing their problems," he told DW.

"For a country like Nepal, which has a large number of physically challenged people, this attitude is tragic."

Laxman Aryal, a secretary at the Ministry of Health and Populations, told DW the government has instructed all hospitals to treat people with disabilities as priority cases.