Don't let social distancing become anti-social

Look out for the vulnerable and disabled among us in public spaces such as the MRT

Covid-19 is the new normal now. At the start of this year, not many of us would have thought that in a short three months (it's not even April!), we would be subject to a public health pandemic worse than Sars, that the optimism of the new year would give way to prospects of a looming recession and anxieties over personal health. Terms such as telecommuting, split teams and social distancing are now on everyone's lips.

But as we get used to the new normal, we need to understand that even before the coronavirus reared its ugly head, life as per "normal" was already a challenge for some members of the community.

People who suffer from physical disabilities or visual impairment often need more care when navigating the streets and corners of Singapore.

Whether it is ramps and lifts for wheelchair users or tactile paving (those raised dots on footpaths, stairs, pedestrian crossings and train stations) for the blind, there is infrastructure in place to aid them. Nevertheless, a helping hand is always welcome, whether it is on the train or bus, or on pavements.

But now, in the time of Covid-19, when social distancing encourages us to be no closer than 1m of each other, how can we extend a hand to help when we can't even get near enough to touch?

Mr Chong Kwek Bin, who is in charge of advocacy at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), said: "The visually impaired typically need two types of help: information and taking them to some place."

Information such as bus service numbers can be provided without physical contact. But guiding them to a place, such as the toilet or to a seat or door, requires physical contact and cannot be done effectively otherwise.

Mr Chong told me that SAVH is concerned that this might lead to the general public becoming less willing to offer assistance.

Psychotherapist and social advocate Cassandra Chiu, who is blind and uses a guide dog, said: "Friends have shared in the last couple of days that when they ask for help, people are either very far away or do not respond to them.

"Social distancing is necessary given the current situation, of course, but it is posing a challenge to those who are blind or suffering from vision loss. This is because we do require a fair amount of help, especially those of us who don't have a guide dog."

Social distancing doesn't just affect those who are blind. And neither is its effects limited to those in Singapore.

Human rights advocate Catalina Devandas Aguilar, who is the World Health Organisation's (WHO) special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, warned on March 17 that across the world, little has been done to provide guidance and support to people with disabilities.

People with visual impairment being guided by SMRT staff at the Yishun Integrated Transport Hub last year. Social distancing does not prevent us from bridging the gap with a vulnerable person to offer help, the writer says. ST FILE PHOTO

"People with disabilities feel they have been left behind," she said.

"Many people with disabilities depend on services that have been suspended and may not have enough money to stockpile food and medicine, or afford the extra cost of home deliveries."

Another WHO officer, Ms Lindsay Lee, who uses a wheelchair, explained in a Q&A session hosted on the WHO Twitter account that people with disabilities can suffer a higher risk of getting Covid-19. For example, some may have difficulties in implementing the additional hygiene practices needed, or be unable to practise social distancing because they need care or support.

She said: "These (difficulties) can be exacerbated in crisis situations."

In Sarawak, the Society of the Blind Malaysia has appealed to get top priority for aid to the 40,000 disabled people in the East Malaysian state, reported The Star Online. The society's chairman, who is blind, said that the visually impaired and physically handicapped people may have little income during Covid-19. Most are vulnerable to economic disruption as many of them work to earn a daily wage as buskers, tissue paper sellers or artisans.

In Singapore, the roughly three in 10 disabled people of working age with jobs may also face income loss.

With the climate of fear hitting even the most able-bodied of us, what more the differently abled? And now, as everyone is urged to keep our distance, there is a real risk that the latter do not get the help they need when they need to move about.

Social distancing is a social responsibility we all share to keep the community healthy during a health crisis, but what about the social responsibility to help those who are in need? How do we strike that balance? How do we ensure that social distancing does not end up making us socially distant? Where does kindness come in?

One way to resolve the seeming conflict is to realise that social distancing guidelines are not meant to be absolute: We are not asked to avoid all physical contact or to always maintain a distance with others. The guidelines are meant to separate people in public spaces, so that anyone with an infection does not pass it on to random people who are impossible to trace for isolation.

It does not prevent us from bridging the gap with a vulnerable person to offer help. Coming closer to offer help and verbal instructions for a minute or two is enough to help them find their way.

Ms Chiu suggested: "Step a little closer and identify yourself. Say 'hi, I'm just next to you, would you need some help?' Because if you're shouting from 2m away, the blind person won't know if you're talking to him.

"Understandably, (with Covid-19) not many people want to touch anyone unnecessarily but when you're closer, we can hear your specific verbal instructions such as 'walk straight about 10 steps then turn left'."

She added: "Please avoid 'go here' or 'go there' instructions that would not be helpful to a blind person with no frame of reference, especially now that we too have less tactile feedback given that we are also trying to avoid touching all sorts of surfaces."

SAVH's Mr Chong said: "Our intended messaging is that we want those with the heart to still offer assistance the right way, even if it means physical contact. The guidelines are minimise physical contact and implement social distancing where feasible, not to avoid entirely."

Practising social distancing does not mean being socially isolated. It certainly does not mean leaving the disabled or vulnerable we see to fend for themselves.

In other words, use your head. But don't forget to use some heart as well.

Remember that while you may find the measures put in place to keep us safe and healthy as time-consuming or inconvenient, those who suffer from disabilities are even more in need in a time such as this.

So, be prudent, but be kind. Be vigilant, but be ready to help. Be aware, of every opportunity to help a fellow human being in need.

• William Wan is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2020, with the headline Don't let social distancing become anti-social. Subscribe