World Health Organisation’s regional leadership engages to reinforce inclusion of persons with disabilities in the COVID-19 response

World Health Organisation’s regional leadership engages to reinforce inclusion of persons with disabilities in the COVID-19 response

On Monday, November 23rd, the EDF President, Yannis Vardakastanis, met with Dr. Hans Kluge, Regional Representative for WHO in Europe to discuss ways in which children and adults with disabilities can be included in the pandemic response.


As COVID-19 hit the world, the European Disability Forum (EDF) expressed the importance of inclusive responses to the pandemic with full involvement of persons with disabilities. Right from the beginning of the pandemic, persons with disabilities were discriminated against and excluded from government responses. Like older people in residential care, persons with disabilities were also exposed to higher rates of infection and death, in residential institutions.

EDF has worked with its members throughout 2020 to address these issues and to ensure that the pandemic response becomes more inclusive. EDF began its cooperation with the WHO European regional office to develop inclusive COVID 19 public health information. Monday’s meeting served to take stock of the current situation and health priorities and outline our future cooperation.

At our virtual tables

The meeting, which was also attended by a representative of the Healthy ageing, Human resource for Health & Health Services, and, Strategic partnership units of WHO EURO was a good opportunity to examine the situation of persons with disabilities during this second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. EDF highlighted that persons with disabilities are especially at risk from COVID-19. Through no choice, many are living in residential institutions and their situation in lockdown continues to be critical. Other important priorities raised by Gunta Anca, member of EDFs executive committee, were the lack of accessibility and inclusion in public health messaging, denial of healthcare and discriminatory triage guidelines, decreasing access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, the increase in forced and coercive treatment, invisibility of persons with disabilities in data and statistics, and exclusion of children with disabilities from quality schooling during school shutdowns.

Dr. Kluge shared the general strategy of WHO for the Euro region, which includes 53 countries. He stated his commitment to leave no-one behind and to forge cooperation with all partners. He reflected on the importance of keeping primary schools open, safely, to ensure that children with disabilities do not get excluded. He also emphasised the importance for him of inclusive accessible public health messages.
Now that we are hearing good news about effective vaccine development, EDF highlighted that access to vaccines for persons with disabilities and their support networks- EDF called on WHO to support the prioritization of persons with disabilities for vaccine roll-out.

The beginning of a strong cooperation

For some months, EDF has been already working together with WHO Europe on a new project focusing on developing and disseminating messages on how to ensure persons with disabilities are included in the European public health response. The project is coordinated by the disability and rehabilitation programme for WHO EURO. The meeting on Monday laid out some key priorities for EDF and WHO’s cooperation in the region, including inclusive and accessible public health messaging and cooperation at the national level between DPOs and WHO representatives in the countries.

“We appreciate deeply the commitment of WHO to cooperate with the Disability Movement in the European region. Access to a good standard of health is a human right. We know that this right is not a reality for all. Leaving no-one behind must be our shared vision. The pandemic, described by Dr. Kluge in our meeting, as a ‘human catastrophe’ has side-lined persons with disabilities even further in our societies. We need to reverse this. It should reinforce our determination to ensure access for all to the best health, the best standard of living, and the most choices and opportunities in life,” stated EDF President.

Read more about our project with the WHO Europe

Read more about the WHO EURO disability and rehabilitation work

Read more about EDF COVID-19 related work

Read more about EDF’s recommendations on vaccination

With 53 country offices across the WHO European region, the WHO Europe wants its response to COVID-19 to be fully inclusive of persons with disabilities. WHO EURO wants also to ensure it is in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the new global guidance published by WHO – WHO Disability Consideration on COVID-19 – and by Antonio Guterres – the UNSG policy brief on disability. It is crucial that WHO staff, national ministries, and other key partners involve persons with disabilities and their representative organisations (DPOs), to address the range of risks which persons with disabilities face as a result of COVID-19.

EDF will develop a series of materials focusing on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in response to COVID-19. EDF will go beyond the right to health as this is a cross-cutting issue, working on ‘How’ to ensure persons with disabilities are included in the COVID-19 response. EDF will therefore also focus on COVID-19 prevention, access to health services, and rehabilitation.