By Ibrahim Angaangmeni Alhassan
The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought about dramatic changes in people’s individual, family, and social lifestyle. Most countries have implemented some regulations including wearing face masks, face shields, physical, and social distance in public places to reduce the spread of the virus. However, these global recommendations may be associated with significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges for hearing-impaired people.
Wearing of face masks, physical, and social distancing, e-learning and virtual communications during COVID-19 pandemic have provided some problems for the hearing impaired making them feel marginalized. This can, in turn, have negative consequences including increased feelings of loneliness, isolation and also some limitations in access to educational materials as well as other services such as COVID-19 vaccination.
For the millions of people with deafness or hearing loss, communities wearing face masks presents a barrier to communication and also a risk of being exposed to inaccessible safety information. Unfortunately, someone talking may not realise the person they are talking to is deaf and rely on lip-reading to communicate. Again, the Deaf person may not even realise that they are being spoken to or warned of a risk to their health or safety.
As the country begins the rolling out of the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccination, persons with hearing impairment will be at a disadvantage since their peculiar cases has not be factored into the planning of the whole fight against this pandemic.
For a deaf person to be able to communicate effectively, he or she must be able to clearly see the mouth and lips of the person they are communicating with. They also rely heavily on sign language, which is accompanied by facial expression and lip pattern and one will wonder how this will be if we are all expected to wear face masks when communicating to others.
The Association of Persons with Hearing and Speech Impairment have raised concerns over what they termed as marginalization and neglect by the health sector.
To the Association, they have been marginalized in almost all aspects of the fight against COVID-19 including the vaccination, which first phase began in Ghana on Monday, 1 March 2021, after the country became the first recipient of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as part of the COVAX initiative and had administered 842,521 vaccine doses as of 20 April 2021.
The second phase of the vaccination was rolled out on May 19, 2021 with recipients according to the Director of Public Health of the Ghana Health Service, Dr. Franklin Asiedu-Bekoe, recipients of for both phases being “health workers, adults 60 years and over, people with underlying health conditions, frontline Executive, Legislature, Judiciary and their related staff, frontline security personnel, and the media in 43 districts, including; 25 in the Greater Accra, 16 in Ashanti and two districts in the Central Regions.
A total of 26, 512 persons were vaccinated in the Northern Region at the close of the first phase of the exercise. The second phase of the covid-19 vaccination exercise, which started in Greater Accra, Ashanti and some selected endemic communities in the Central region, on May 19th , is yet to start in the Northern Region.
Recounting their ordeal and daily struggles during this pandemic period, Madam Mariama Abubakari, Gender Officer of the Ghana Federation of the Disability Organisation in the Northern Region in an interview, said members struggle to have access to verified and authentic information on the pandemic and the vaccination exercise and nobody seems to care about them in the region .
This she says make them shun away from participating in the exercise. Recounting their daily struggles in the pandemic period, the deaf society members said no one seems to care about them in the region.
Madam Mariama noted that with their challenge in communication, none of the members have been vaccinated since the exercise started in the Northern Region, explaining that “the Ghana Health Service has not made any effort in contacting the Association to assist us address our legitimate concerns”.
“My members had not taken the covid-19 vaccine and no government agency had contacted us about the vaccine. In terms of information availability, we are marginalized. We have very little access to information and sign language is not being used mostly on TV for us to know what’s going on about the vaccination. You know as for the radio stations, they are even worse because they can’t use sign language.
“We are just left in the dark and neglected. Where is the sign language interpreter to get us informed and where to go for the vaccine? There is a huge communication gap and apart from when the Ministers address the media at the national COVOD-19 events on the national television where there is sign language interpreters, adding that besides the state broadcaster Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, “there is no sign language in all the other television stations” she lamented.
The Disability Act, 2006 Act 715
In fighting for their legitimate right to be to have access to information about their health and access to healthcare services, the Disability Act of Ghana provides a comprehensive framework for the engagement of Persons With Disabilities in all aspects of live. Section 33 of the Act stipulates that; the Ministry of Health in formulating health policies shall provide for free general and specialist medical care, rehabilitative operation treatment and appropriate, but unfortunately, that was not being done.
In the administration of the covid-19 vaccines in the northern region, with a special focus on the Tamale Metropolis, the above provisions have been sidestepped by the Ghana Health Service.
Mr Sumani Bapio Ibrahim, 30 years old and the former Northern Regional President of the Ghana Deaf Union, called on government, NGOs and CSOs to ensure that there is effective access to information, whenever, they have sensitization progremmes on COVID-19 to enable PWDs such as the deaf to also get enough information to inform their decisions just like their abled counterparts.
According to Mr. Mohammed Seidu Chentima, the Northern Regional Chairman of the Regional Resource Center for Disability the PWDs population in region stands at over 3,000 with 300 of them being persons with speech and hearing impairment.
“He expressed disappointment on the part of the Health Service saying, “We even contacted the Regional Directorate for our offices to be fumigated but we were not assisted and we feel neglected and that is a big disappointment.”
Mr Chent ima revealed that the Ghana Federation of Disability Organisations have members suffering from some underlying health conditions but not that of a known member of the Deaf Society.
“Within the deaf society, we don’t have any one with underlying health conditions but the fact that we are part of the vulnerable groups, the GHS has to pay special attention to us”
He appealed to the GHS to prioritize the needs of PWDs especially on the covid-19 vaccination exercise.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ali Soar, the Tamale Metropolitan Director of Health Services, said a team of vacation staff from overseas were sent to the Northern Regional Resource Center for Persons with Disability offer health care services.
According to the Ghana Health Service website update as at May 15, Ghana has recorded 93,456 covid -19 cases, 783 deaths and 91,348 recoveries.
People with hearing loss may experience problems during COVID-19 pandemic. There are some strategies that can be implemented to partially solve some communicative and social problems of this group. The use of transparent face masks, compensatory strategies, as well as optimization of virtual, and tele health, tele rehabilitation and tele-education services can be helpful for hearing-impaired people during this pandemic era.
The writer is Mentee under the mobilizing media to fighting COVID-19 project by Journalists for Human.