By Pratima Gurung
KATHMANDU—In Nepal the Covid-19 crisis has been especially hard on indigenous peoples. We had to learn a new vocabulary and use words like quarantine, self-isolation, hand sanitizers and social distancing.
We also had to respect rules that did not previously apply to our lives. Indigenous peoples are not used to washing their hands all the time because our culture is so much closer to Mother Earth and because much of the time, we don’t have running water.
The situation has been even more difficult for indigenous persons with a disability, like me. I cannot keep my social distance if I need help at the same time. I can manage on my own but as I only have one hand, I have not been able to follow the health recommendations to the letter, which causes me a lot of anxiety. The pandemic has made me feel more “disabled” than ever.
This is the situation that indigenous people with disabilities face every day. Most of them don’t have access to vital medical supplies—for instance, people with spinal cord injuries who need catheters or those with hemophilia in need of plasma.
Indigenous women with disabilities have faced discrimination, violence and abuse. There have also been rising levels of suicide during this pandemic.
Indigenous people make up around one third of the country’s total population, approximately 11 million out of the 30 million Nepalese. Their special needs need to be addressed in a way that takes into account their cultures.
When the authorities announced the lockdown, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples could not get information about this virus in native, local and sign languages, because health and public campaigns around Covid-19 are still not indigenous and culture friendly.
While the government is distributing relief packages to some residents, most indigenous people do not have the required paperwork to receive these supplies. To get help either you need to have a citizenship or disability card, or your name should be registered. Most often vulnerable, marginalized groups like indigenous people and persons with disabilities do not have these documents so they are excluded from services. People are dying of starvation.
We don’t have a full picture of what is really happening in the country. Nepal has been under nationwide lockdown since March and it has been extended about half-a-dozen times since. As Covid-19 cases continue to surge these measures were extended until July 22.
To improve things, we first need to properly evaluate the situation on the ground. Indigenous people, especially those with disabilities, have special needs. Without disaggregated data by sex, age, ethnicity, disability, health status, income and geography we cannot properly address them. A blanket approach does not work.
In spite of all the difficulties, indigenous peoples are rising to the challenge. Some organizations, including the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal are disseminating information about Covid-19 and providing food and sanitation supplies to some communities. The indigenous TV channel has been giving information in both indigenous and sign language, with the support of the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal.
I hope the measures they have put in place (which aim to strengthen health systems, ensure job recovery and enhance access to social protection) will not leave us behind. We need to be part of any discussion that addresses these issues because only we know how the pandemic is affecting us. Implementation of ILO Convention No. 169 has therefore become more important than ever.
As an activist, this situation has been a real challenge for me and for my organization. I am confined in Katmandu and cannot travel. I feel that I am not helping my people as much as I would like. I fear that when we know what is really happening on the ground, we will face a worse situation than the one we suffered after the 2015 earthquake that devastated our country.
—(IPS) Pratima Gurung is General Secretary, the Global Network of Indigenous Peoples with Disabilities (IPWDGN) President, the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association in Nepal (NIDWAN).