The British Council, on behalf of the CSC, is developing a series of online panel discussions related to the CSC’s development themes for Commonwealth Alumni across the West and Southern Africa region. These online panel discussions will enable networking amongst alumni in related fields, extend knowledge, and provide an opportunity to share learning and examples of best practice through a community of practice.

Access and inclusion in a pandemic: the first workshop

The first online panel discussion was held on 14 October on the topic, ‘Access and inclusion in a pandemic’. Over 80 alumni attended the event.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many nations have been facing socio-economic crisis, rising insecurity, and food shortages amidst increasing public health challenges. Despite being a population that is particularly at-risk to COVID-19, persons with disabilities and the elderly face even greater inequalities in accessing healthcare during the pandemic, due to inaccessible health information and environments, as well as selective medical guidelines and protocols that may magnify the disenfranchisement persons with disabilities face in healthcare provision. In addition, the reports and emerging data from those on the front line have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. Other vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, have also been greatly impacted.

The panel consisted of Commonwealth Alumni from across the West and Southern Africa region who are experts in the fields of gender, women’s rights, gerontology, disability studies, and community development.

Meeting the panel

Prince Tommy Williams, 2011 Commonwealth Professional Fellow from Sierra Leone, Lifeline Network International

Prince is a community development expert specialising in education, leadership, and gender. He is currently the Executive Director for Lifeline Nehemiah Project.

Michael Kalu, 2013 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Nigeria, MSc Gerontology, University of Southampton

Michael is the Scientific Director of Emerging Researchers and Professionals in Ageing African Network, which, among other opportunities, provides scholarships to final year undergraduate students whose projects promise to improve older adults’ health and social care.

Dorcas Tiwaa Addai, 2016 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from Ghana, MA Human Rights, Globalisation and Justice, Keele University

Dorcas is a Senior Investigator at the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), in the International Cooperation Unit. She has been involved in the promotion of international human rights principles in Ghana. Dorcas moderated the panel discussion.

Boston Munthali, 2016 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Malawi, MSc Orthopaedic Trauma Science, Queen Mary University of London

Boston works with the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population as the lead Specialist Orthopaedic Surgeon at Mzuzu Central Hospital. His work involves treating patients with musculoskeletal diseases, including surgery to mitigate the severity of disabilities.

COVID-19: gender, age, and disability

The panel highlighted different aspects surrounding COVID-19, its impact in relation to gender, age, and disability, exploring possible solutions and challenges in view of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Michael discussed the impact of the lockdown on psycho-cognitive, social, financial and personal factors facing the older adult population, especially in the Sub Saharan African region where mental health is ranked as a low priority. The restrictions imposed by lockdowns and curfew imply that the older adult population would have reduced quality and quantity of psycho-cognitive support during this time and would therefore be prone to loneliness and depression. In response to this, Michael suggested conducting further assessments around what needs older adults require to provide research to policy makers to help design policies for this demographic addressing particular challenges they face. He also tasked health care workers with ensuring they check in with the mental health of older people by investigating their attitudes towards illnesses as well as enquiring about their social networks.

In his presentation, Prince raised the challenges facing victims of gender-based violence living in lockdown districts, who are unable to access support due to movement restrictions. From his own work in Sierra Leone, he shared some of the ways his organisation has adapted delivery methods in response to restrictions, such as transferring aid and resources through digital channels and raising mentors in rural/distant communities to provide psychosocial support to young women and girls in the affected parts. Prince’s proposed solutions were around policy making to protect victims and provide psychosocial support. He discussed that policies and legislation should not just focus on punitive measures for offenders, but should ensure victims are supported, their mental health and rehabilitation is managed, the community is educated, and victims are reintegrated into the community as well.

Boston, a health care worker, highlighted that while Malawi was not on a full or prolonged lockdown, citizens were required to make some adjustments in line with government directives. This included the closure of some rehabilitation clinics which was affecting elderly patients who could no longer access physiotherapy care. Similarly, some NGO-funded facilities caring for children with disabilities were also closed as they could not continue to manage patients at risk of the virus. This had resulted in many rehabilitative care workers being laid off. Boston noted there was significant disruption of medical supplies and devices to the hospitals and budgetary shifting, which meant funding was channeled towards fighting COVID-19. Fortunately, at the time of presenting, there were low cases and the country was gradually returning to normal.

Boston surmised that possible solutions could start in the form of increased human resources in the health sector, as Malawi suffers approximately a 40% vacancy rate. With regards to the supply chain, he suggested the development of a more proactive approach to stock piling medical resources instead of waiting for an emergency. He also advocated for better policies to provide guidance on how medical work should be carried out during a pandemic to ensure no type of medical emergency or treatment is left behind. Drawing on his own work, he shared that diverting healthcare attention and delivery to COVID-19 and other future pandemic cases only may have significant consequences for sectors such as accidents and trauma which may lead to an increase in persons with disabilities if they cannot be treated urgently.

Following presentations by the panelists, discussion was opened to participants to share their comments and questions, leading to wider discussion on mental health and the mental health of medical workers and how to manage this for the older adult population.

To find out more about upcoming alumni events, webinars and workshops, visit the event calendar.