World Health Day: A call for inclusive COVID-19 vaccines

This World Health Day, we take a closer look at the burning global topic “access to the COVID-19 vaccine”. For Light for the World and the communities we serve, including people with disabilities, the stakes are agonisingly high.
Light for the World inclusion expert Ambrose Murangira shares information about COVID-19 in Ugandan sign language.

The scramble for vaccines

While leading high-income countries make fast progress in getting their people vaccinated, most African countries are either still waiting for the first doses or have only received small amounts which can’t even cover the healthcare personnel, let alone other priority groups.

Indeed, the WHO estimates that 76% of all available vaccine doses have gone to just 10 countries, most of them high-income.

The problem with any nationalist solutions to this global health crisis? To quote from a joint statement of global and government leaders: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”

On top of the severe inequity in vaccine distribution between rich and poor countries, very few governments recognise the importance of reaching people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 and of developing serious health conditions after a COVID-19 infection.

In Ethiopia, thanks to the global initiative for fair distribution of vaccines – COVAX, the country received its first 2.2 million doses in early March. But among those 1.1 million people that can be vaccinated with this first batch, it’s estimated only 200 will be people with disabilities.

In Mozambique, where communities also face bloodshed and vast insecurity in the North, as well as repeated cyclones and floods, the first doses have just arrived. The country expects 1.7 million doses more by May from China, India and COVAX. The number going to people with disabilities: unknown.

Time to act: Making vaccines accessible to those most at risk

Together with the International Disability Alliance and the International Disability and Development Consortium, Light for the World is making an urgent call to the United Nations and government leaders:

  • Make vaccination plans fully inclusive, equitable and accessible.
  • Recognise people with disabilities as a priority group.
  • Collect and use data for vaccine plans disaggregated by disability, age and sex.

“Governments and international agencies must prioritise people with disabilities in their access to the vaccine and actively involve their representatives in all planning,” says Johanna Mang, Head of Advocacy at Light for the World. “Fully inclusive vaccination plans will help the world become safer.”

 “The first challenge is information”

We asked individuals in our programmes about their experiences around COVID-19, the vaccine and overall healthcare.
One main finding from these interviews: Accessible information is a necessary element of any COVID-19 response, and it must be part of overall healthcare as well. Clear, accessible public health information – including plain language, large print, Sign Language and Braille – is a pre-condition for people to make informed decisions about their health, protecting themselves and others.

25-year-old microentrepreneur José who uses a tricycle speaks to a client in front of his market stall.

José, 25, who runs a small business in Mozambique tells us: “There are a lot of barriers that will prevent vulnerable people and people with disabilities to get access. The first challenge is information. Not all of us are aware about the vaccination process and its importance.”

He also shares his concerns about the psychosocial impact of restrictions and isolation and points out that many people with disabilities need extra care which makes physical distancing difficult.
Musa, 31, a Ugandan disability inclusion activist, shared with us: “I would like the government to consider people with disabilities as part of the priority group because the risk is higher for us to get COVID.”

“People with visual disabilities need to work with a personal assistant, so we are at a higher risk. The government also needs to educate the public about the side effects and clear the air about the myths going around. I also think the government should find a way to bring the vaccines closer to the people.”

“I would like to get a vaccine after I get good information on the side effects and what medical care I could get if I had a bad reaction to it."

The Right to Health & people with disabilities

Enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the right of all people with disabilities to the highest level of health care should be universally recognised.

Yet, as shown above, the practical realisation of this right is severely lacking.

On World Health Day and every day – good health is everyone’s business, and everyone has the right to enjoy it fully.   

Join our fight to make vaccinations available and accessible to all.