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COVID-19 impacts people with disabilities the most. Pacific and Timor-Leste

Stories | November 24, 2021

After their huge success in remaining almost COVID-19 free throughout 2020, several Pacific Island nations and neighbouring Timor-Leste faced a sharp increase in cases in 2021.

In the Pacific and Timor-Leste, limited COVID-19 testing, slow vaccine rollouts and poor healthcare systems has compounded things for vulnerable populations and people with disabilities. Which is why CBM has been working alongside the disability movement throughout the pandemic to support the Government to prioritise people with disabilities in all COVID-19 response and recovery.

Earlier this year Papua New Guinea saw COVID-19 surge in the community. Within weeks, cases climbed into the thousands. People with disabilities reported a lack of accessible health information, extreme economic hardship, and a lack of government support. We spoke to Adrian, a disability advocate with a physical disability living in Port Moresby, who told us “a lot of persons with disability are really missing out on a lot of those opportunities to even access what the government is providing.” He was also concerned about access for people with different types of disability: “Accessible for me is not just about physical infrastructure. It is about how do we communicate with the people who are vision impaired, how do we make information available for the hearing impaired?”

In May, after a year of almost no community transmission in Fiji, the extremely infectious Delta strain of COVID-19 arrived in the country. This saw a rapid increase in community cases and most of the Fiji population thrown into lockdown, lasting for months. CBM’s Fiji-based partner Pacific Disability Forum (PDF) is a regional umbrella organisation that supports up to 71 organisations of people with disabilities across 22 Pacific Island countries and territories. PDF has been working to roll out inclusive health messaging and advice as well as mobilise response teams to support Organisations of People with Disabilities in seven regions of concern. CBM has provided support to PDF during this time. As we near the end of the year it is promising to see Fiji has vaccinated more than 80% of its population with a strong vaccine campaign and boosted vaccine supply. Lifting vaccination rates among the remaining Pacific nations is critical as this will provide further protection for people with disabilities.

Timor-Leste started to see a rise in cases in February across their border with Indonesia. The virus eventually reached the capital Dili seeing the country impose its first lockdown, which continued for months. Despite the lockdown the number of cases continued to rise into the thousands. The Government of Timor-Leste tried to reduce numbers by removing people from their homes and placing them in a quarantine facility when positive. But the facilities were not always accessible or inclusive. That’s why CBM has been supporting the Australian Government’s Partnership for Human Development to ensure the approach is more inclusive. More recently CBM has been working to ensure free and equal access to vaccines for all people.

Not only does our research indicate people with disabilities are more likely to die from COVID-19, they also face greater loss of income than people without disabilities, inaccessible critical health information and reduced access to services and supports.

To build back a better world following the COVID-19 pandemic it is CBM’s priority to ensure all people with disabilities in the Pacific and Timor-Leste have access to the vaccine, public health services and economic recovery. We are working to achieve this through partnering with local organisations of people with disabilities (OPDs) and the Australian Government.  


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