A person with disabilities followed by HI, Bambari, Central African Republic (CAR) | © A. Surprenant/Collectif Item/HI
One of the poorest countries in the world and already confronted by one of its worst humanitarian crises, the Central African Republic must now face the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. HI’s teams are working to ensure people with disabilities and vulnerable individuals at risk from exclusion are included in epidemic prevention actions.
“CAR is already experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis. The country has been racked by civil war for seven years. More than a quarter of the population was displaced by violence in 2013. The east of the country is currently the worst affected. Various highly active armed groups continue to hold sway. This regularly displaces people, which could worsen the pandemic,” explains Perrine Benoist, HI’s operations officer in CAR. “The civil war is gradually chipping away at local support networks. This is really worrying because many people are highly vulnerable to the new humanitarian crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The people assisted by our teams – displaced, older or isolated people, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, some of whom do not speak the country’s majority languages, and the poorest people who live in dire conditions - are among the most vulnerable.”
Against this background, HI’s teams are working  to improve messages on the risk of COVID-19 and the need for community involvement, and to reliably raise the awareness of the most vulnerable groups and better prepare them for the virus. They also provide support to local actors, authorities and organisations, and build their capacity to monitor and prevent infections. This is done in coordination with the national crisis unit.
“During a conflict or mass displacement, people with disabilities are often ‘left behind’ and forgotten in needs assessments or aid planning. The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic in CAR, added to the existing humanitarian crisis, means they face even more obstacles than usual. Long distances, an environment that makes travel difficult and poor access to information can, for example, prevent them from accessing food distribution points or hygiene kits,” explains Perrine Benoist.
In a situation made worse by COVID-19, for people with disabilities, particularly the most dependent who have a sensory or intellectual impairment, or who require regular care, the lack of information and difficulties accessing services, added to the stigma they suffer, can lead communities to stop taking care of them, which could prove fatal. A study by HI in CAR revealed that 43% suffer discrimination when accessing care and social services, and humanitarian aid.
However, people with disabilities are not the only ones to face this problem. Many other groups risk exclusion, including older people, displaced people, many of them destitute, and the chronically ill. As a result, we work at multiple levels, taking a highly integrated approach, and raise the awareness of other actors to ensure the most vulnerable individuals are systematically included in all assistance services, including emergency response.
HI’s COVID-19 awareness-raising and prevention actions are designed to ensure “no one is left behind”. We adapt our messages to each vulnerable group - people over the age of 60, members of disabled people’s organisations and people with chronic illnesses - so they pass on these messages to their own networks in turn.
HI’s teams visit people’s homes to raise awareness of hygiene and basic personal precautionary measures that help prevent the spread of the virus. They also train community representatives, members of young people’s organisations, women and people with disabilities to teach basic precautionary measures and best practices to members of their networks.
HI transports humanitarian aid for COVID-19 response at no cost and uses this opportunity to make road hauliers aware of basic precautionary measures: as they frequently pick up supplies in Cameroon, which is worse affected by the virus, lorry drivers run greater risks many than others.