COVID-19 responses in Bhutan: perspectives from Ability Bhutan Society

Global Handwashing Day is celebrated every 15 October to raise awareness on the importance of handwashing with soap. In this Q&A, Ugyen Wangchuk, Executive Director of Ability Bhutan Society (ABS) - SNV in Bhutan’s Disable People’s Organisation partner - sheds some light on how COVID-19 has impacted on people with disabilities’ access to WASH, and ongoing government efforts to ensure that behavioural change communications and safety measures are inclusive and wide reaching.

Every year, relevant stakeholders in Bhutan, including government, civil society organisations, Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), and international development organisations come together to observe this day. This year’s Global Handwashing Day theme is Hand Hygiene for All. It is aligned with the Hand Hygiene for All global initiative, which aims to catalyse the hand hygiene momentum achieved in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here is what our ABS partners have to say about recent developments in and responses to handwashing with soap.

COVID-19 has radically changed the way many people lead their lives. How has the pandemic affected various people with disabilities?

  • People with disabilities, particularly those in schools, have been unable to access learning materials as teachers are not able to facilitate individual learning packages.

  • In the absence of teachers, people (students) with disabilities whose parents have not had the opportunity to attend schools are also not able to benefit from formal education and mentorship from their parents.

  • Due to lockdowns and restrictions in movement, children have become bored with their new realities.

  • Online classes have not always been effective. Poor IT knowledge and skills, and internet inaccessibility, especially in remote areas, have hampered access to school lessons.

  • Parents living in poverty are unable to purchase electronic gadgets to aid in home schooling.

  • Assistive technology has not been feasible for students with disabilities.

  • Parents today are carrying the burden of care over their children, on top of their daily activities.

How inclusive has the COVID-19 response been? Were people with disabilities’ specific needs addressed?

  • NGOs’ initiated the delivery of essential items, vegetables, medicines, and other basic essentials.

  • His Majesty the King granted a separate response for people with disabilities.

  • Her Majesty the Queen granted a special movement card for people with disabilities during the lockdown.

What are the areas of collaboration with SNV and PHED? How has this collaboration progressed over the years?

Our contributions to the government’s national rural sanitation and hygiene programme started in 2015, during the disability formative research conducted by SNV and PHED. Research findings provided valuable insight to the development of the government’s separate policies and strategies on WASH and disability. Additionally, findings of the formative research helped us win a proposal on social inclusive development for persons with disabilities in five districts. Today, ABS visits districts and communities, along with the teams of SNV and PHED. During these visits, we talk about the sanitation and hygiene needs of people with disabilities. These visits also give us the opportunity to increase local leaders’ awareness on disability inclusion in WASH. - Ugyen Wangchuk, Executive Director, Ability Bhutan Society

Continued collaboration with SNV has, so far, resulted in the following:

  • ABS-identified needs and challenges of people with disabilities were later on used to inform inclusive WASH activity and service designs in different Dzongkhags.

  • ABS gained the opportunity to raise awareness on disability issues during the observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

  • Ahead of Global Handwashing day 2020, and with SNV, several safety and preventative materials in print and video – with a focus on disabilities – have been produced and will be shared across 20 districts in Bhutan.

DPO partnership with government seems to be yielding positive results. Is this partnership expanding to other areas of sanitation or development? Any advice you’d like to give on how to strengthen this partnership further?

  • Yes, our vision is to make every aspect of WASH and sanitation inclusive, and every public WASH facility accessible.

Any messages you would like to convey to the government, responsible agencies, and partners regarding inclusion, especially in times of such a pandemic?

  • Initiate a study on the impact of the pandemic on WASH access of and delivery to people with disabilities. Engage in a situational analysis to gain important insights for future programming.

  • Make every WASH facility more accessible. Especially the new hand washing stations that are being installed.