Pandemic and the vulnerable groups

At the times of crisis, the most vulnerable segments of society are the most likely to suffer and the least likely to receive assistance. In the case of the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, this is no different. Whether it is women, children, the elderly and the handicapped, or refugees, minorities and the poor, the difficulties and challenges these groups face usually do not get the same attention as the urgent issues that are addressed immediately.

When COVID-19 hit the world — at lightning speed and with such viciousness — it prompted countries to take extreme, but necessary measures, including lockdowns, to prevent and contain its spread,. However, as time crawled by, the virus’s effects loomed over people’s lives and heightened their panic, uncertainty and stress. Along with the downturn in the economy and the rise of unemployment, the social impact of the pandemic has been palpable. Reports have shown that coronavirus is disproportionately affecting women and girls around the world, including disrupting access to maternal health, jeopardizing care-givers — where women represent 70 percent of the global health care workforce and carry out the majority of unpaid care work — and increasing the risk of domestic violence. In addition, the pandemic has also affected women economically, as many of them work in the sectors that have been the hardest hit, such as travel, tourism, hospitality and retail, while many women work part-time or at home and in the informal economy and have limited savings. In the longer term, women may be disproportionately affected by cuts to social services including health, water and sanitation, and social care.

Furthermore, as many daily essential activities, such as work and teaching, moved online, it put women and girls at a disadvantage as the gap in access and knowhow between males and females is wide. School closures also increased the risks of child labor and exploitation, as well as depriving thousands of poor children from getting their main meal at school. Experience from other emergency contexts highlights an increase in child, early and forced marriage as a means for poor and marginalized families to reduce the number of mouths to feed, which increases the chances of girls dropping out of school and also leads to early pregnancy and its associated health risks.

While the numbers indicate that COVID-19 hospitalizes and kills more men than women, the overall impact on lives is hurting women and girls the most, especially in poor countries and among those who are displaced, refugees or living in conflict-affected areas. Many experts are warning that, if officials and the society at large do not act now, women and girls will be suffering from the pandemic’s fallout for decades to come.

As for education in developing and underdeveloped countries, as well as underprivileged communities that do not have advanced and efficient remote schooling systems, this school year might as well be considered lost. While the affected children might have enjoyed not going to school at first and thought of it as a vacation, the lockdown has probably harmed them psychologically, especially if they have noticed it affecting their parents, who might have become stressed, depressed and maybe even violent. The risk of online child sexual exploitation should also be considered, as more children are spending more time connected to the internet. Also, it has been reported in some countries that the childhood vaccinations has plunged since the pandemic began due to a massive backlog of shipments and the concerns of parents over taking their children to clinics. They fear of being infected with the coronavirus, which would also expose children to the risk of other serious diseases like measles, polio, tetanus and other infectious diseases besides COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the high rate of COVID-19 fatalities in care facilities for the elderly and people with disabilities in some countries has been shocking; as horrific reports have emerged of neglect during the pandemic. Such discrimination is inhumane, as medical decisions should be based on individualized clinical assessments and medical need, not on age or disability. However, the very high infection rate and rapid spread of the virus has overwhelmed some of the best health care services in the world and put tremendous pressure on health care providers, forcing them to make difficult decisions. Had the pandemic been handled well at the beginning, they wouldn’t have found themselves in such a position.

Nevertheless, the pandemic is intensifying the inequalities experienced by people with disabilities. They face lack of accessible public health information and significant barriers to implementing basic hygiene measures, as well as inaccessible health facilities. Older people in long-term care facilities or who live alone also need special care and attention during quarantine conditions, as they too face obstacles accessing accurate information, food, medication and other essential supplies.

The bottom line is that COVID-19 has indiscriminately targeted people everywhere, but it has affected people differently depending on their circumstances and conditions, and on national preparedness and response plans. What is needed is an inclusive response and recovery effort that does not neglect or discriminate, that guarantees the equal rights of all people in terms of access to health care, and decision-making that takes into consideration all segments of society.

Iqra Javaid is a management student from ICSC, Srinagar

Malik Aamir is Advocate at High Court Srinagar