COVID-19: How The Pandemic Has Affected Persons Living With Autism In Africa

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No single phenomenon has reshaped reality on a global scale in the last five decades like the coronavirus has; 200 million cases, over 4 million dead and billions of dollars in lost revenue are only some of its more conspicuous effects. The tail-end of 2019 saw news about the outbreak of a certain respiratory disease in Wuhan, China filter into mainstream media. At the time, it wasn’t the biggest news. However, since then, the disease has spread like wildfire and very few events have knocked it off the headlines, not even an actual record breaking wildfire.

When the virus inevitably touched down in Africa, the world waited with bated breath for the decimation of dystopian proportions that number-crunchers had predicted on evidence of our poor healthcare, infrastructure and governance. It did come, but not in the form of overwhelmed hospitals and overflowing morgues; the devastation was far more significant in economic terms rather than medical. In Nigeria for example, with less than 3000 recorded Covid-related deaths as at the time of writing this article, the government-imposed lockdowns seemed more reactionary than strategic, for a population with over 40 percent living below the poverty line, and brought with them, untold economic hardship.

About 80 percent of the country’s workforce is in the informal sector and for many of these workers; the lockdown meant an abrupt and extended loss of their entire livelihoods. For families here, with autistic children, many of whom fall under this informal sector category, access to therapy and other essential resources for the condition was difficult, if not impossible.

For Mary (not her real name), a petty trader living and working in Abuja FCT, and who is a mother to an autistic teenager, the lockdown was enormously challenging. She describes how close her family came to starvation. Her household had always depended on her husband’s daily wages from the factory where worked as a labourer which she supplemented with the earnings from her road-side kiosk. By the third week of the lockdown, they had consumed the entire stock of her shop and by the fourth, they were in debt. Needless to say, Mary was unable to achieve a lot of the requisite care for her autistic son at this time as they had done in the past and without this care, her son regressed.

Many neurotypical people describe coronavirus and the lockdown period as mentally exhausting. It therefore, stands to reason that the effect on the fragile psyche of autistic people was exponentially worse. Rafat Salami, a journalist and essential worker describes the toll the lockdown had on her autistic 17 year old son, who at the beginning of the lockdown period was lively, active and even helped with chores around the house. However as the lockdown progressed and he went without therapy, his demeanor changed. “I noticed how my son changed. At first he just seemed bored, but as time went on, he became withdrawn until I could see my son slipping into depression,” she said.

Now that lockdown is mostly over, and economies are beginning to reopen, new problems have risen. We are now just realizing the things we lost in the fire. Many jobs never came back after the regulations were eased and bread winners face the daily fear of going home without bread. Because autism care is cost-intensive, in the face of severely thinning income-streams, the needed care for it is increasingly relegated in some homes, in the pursuit of existential necessities.

Furthermore, as a direct consequence of widespread loss of livelihood, domestic abuse targeted at autistic people has risen. The helplessness and frustration people feel, stuck in place as they are, creates an incredibly tense home situation where family members walk around on eggshells. An autistic child in this situation is like a gunpowder keg and the absence of a job, income or prospects is the flaming torch that sets off the inferno with the flames more than likely directed at the autistic child.

These stories are mirrored in different countries around Africa and the consensus is that the welfare of persons with disabilities was not considered in setting up the logistics for the lockdown around Africa and they suffered greatly for it. Happily there is an end in sight with the discovery of vaccines, however, Africa has received very little reprieve as the economic outcomes of the pandemic have deepened the vulnerability of the millions of low income households here in the time since. As such, autistic children from households within these wealth quintiles have seen the difficulties that arose from the pandemic only