A woman with mobile impairment receives a COVID-19 support package gifted by Hà Nội Red Cross in May. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tùng
HÀ NỘI — When COVID-19 hit Việt Nam’s capital Hà Nội in early March, Nguyễn Thị Vân locked herself up inside her home.
Leading her entire life in a tiny body caused by muscle atrophy, the 33-year-old woman has plenty of experience of the unfriendliness of Việt Nam’s health care system towards wheelchair users.
Fearful of spending a fortnight in a centralised quarantine area, usually military camps, where accessibility for people with disabilities (PWDs) and special needs is a luxury, Vân thought it was better for her to reduce human contacts to reduce her chances of catching the coronavirus.
“For two and a half months, I did not leave home,” Vân said. “I kept thinking about difficulties I might face if I was quarantined and whether the camp staff were skilled enough to work with PWDs.”
An assessment by UNDP Việt Nam on PWDs of the impacts of COVID-19 released in May shows more than 82 per cent of respondents worry about their health care during the pandemic.
Seventy per cent of them said it had gotten harder to access medical services including examination, medicines, assistive devices and rehabilitation.
Heading IMAGTOR, a photo editing company with more than 40 per cent of its workforce PWDs, Vân understands the barriers those with special needs face become greater impediments in times of uncertainty and economic depression.
“When Việt Nam reported its first outbreak in February, we held a company meeting, stressing that the most troubling time was ahead,” said Vân.
“Providing face masks, hand sanitisers and dividing workers into shifts were our first responses. As the disease developments escalated, we allowed them to bring home computers and telework, committing to not dismiss anyone,” she added.
According to the UNDP’s study, up to 96 per cent of surveyed PWD's concerns about their financial insecurity resulted from job losses and income drops. More PWDs have fallen into poverty as 72 per cent of them had a monthly wage of less than VNĐ1 million (US$43.2) in February 2020, about 20 per cent higher than the same period last year.
“While how PWDs can make ends meet during and post the pandemic is a burning question, what about their mental health?” Vân asked.
“It is difficult for them to get proper jobs, even in normal times. Financial insecurity and social norms can push PWDs deeper into the most miserable state,” she said.
“My survey on families with PWDs reveals it got easier to lose their mind during the pandemic.”
Workers and students of Thuỵ An Rehabilitation for PWDs Centre in Hà Nội make facemasks and face shields to send to medical facilities and centralised quarantine camps in April. — VNA/VNS Photo
As of yesterday, none of Việt Nam’s 334 reported COVID-19 patients is a person with disabilities.
“The National Hospital for Tropical Diseases has not received any person with disabilities infected with the disease,” said doctor Đinh Văn Tráng. “However, if there is a case, I think the patient will be treated equally.”
The doctor said it was unclear if a person with disabilities would be escorted by a family member once transferred to a centralised quarantine camp.
“However, I believe medical workers will pay due attention to them,” said Tráng, adding “the Government covers all expenses of treatments and testing for Vietnamese nationals."
Questioning this, Võ Thị Hoàng Yến, founder and director of Disability Research and Capacity Development Centre (DRD), said there was an inherent misconception of “equality” and “equity” in access to health care services of PWDs.
“As PWDs suffer impairments, they need special treatment,” said Yến. “It’s also the health care sector’s responsibility to understand their challenges and difficulties to better serve PWDs.”
COVID-19 has highlighted existing challenges they encounter in access to health care services, said Nguyễn Thị Lan Anh, director of Community Development Centre (ACDC).
“The lack of accessible public transportation is a significant example,” said Anh. “During the 14-day national-scale social distancing period, PWDs had to shoulder additional costs for taxis to go to medical facilities.”
“Staying at home for a long time imposes negative impacts on social interaction capabilities of people with intellectual disabilities,” she added.
NGOs and civil society organisations alone could not address these issues, Anh warned. She called for policy changes, especially in terms of accessibility.
In late April, the Ministry of Health in collaboration with ACDC, issued a handbook on COVID-19 prevention for PWDs. PWDs, families with PWDs, caregivers, medical workers and social organisations working with PWDs are the target audience.
Besides basic information on the disease and preventative measures, the handbook gives recommendations on rehabilitation methods PWDs can do at home to improve physical strength. Family members of PWDs are also instructed to make a clear explanation of COVID-19, exchange information and help PWDs, especially those with mental and intellectual impairments, stay calm during the social distancing period.
Some 7 per cent of Việt Nam’s population is PWDs, equivalent to 6.2 million people. The percentage is expected to rise under impacts of a rapidly ageing population, non-communicable diseases, accidents and natural disasters, according to the MoH. — VNS