Plight of kids orphaned by COVID

President Edgar Chagwa Lungu (right) greets 8 year old Joseph Chinyemba Jr during the Luncheon with Zambian Children at Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa on Friday, January 29,2016. PICTURE BY SALIM HENRY/ STATE HOUSE ©2016

As I was figuring out what to write about this week, news came from the Copperbelt that a fairly young couple had died three days apart, leaving behind three children, the youngest being days old. When the man succumbed to COVID-19-related complications in Ndola Teaching Hospital last Friday, his pregnant wife, who had been admitted to the same hospital, died after giving birth. A source close to the family says it seems the woman couldn’t contain the shock of her husband dying, resulting into her own death, leaving her newborn only two days old. The death of her husband just found the woman at her weakest point – when she needed to recover from the process of childbirth. Obviously, as the only surviving parent of her children, she would have loved to live and take care of the little ones, but as fate would have it, she couldn’t make it.
And just like that, the three young ones lost both parents in a space of three days. Seeing how inconsolable the deceased couple’s children were when they were ushered into the funeral parlour to view their parents’ bodies was a very heartbreaking experience for me. Before they could even get close to the caskets, the little ones broke down and wept bitterly at the mere sight of the two caskets lying side by side. The whole thing is a nerve-wracking experience if you think of the plight of children who are losing their parents to COVID-19 and related complications. You can’t afford not to wonder what would become of these children and how they would be supported in terms of alternative parental care and, of course, emotionally and materially.
Just in the twinkling of an eye, families are being torn apart and children have to go in different directions to live in separate homes. Under the current economic conditions, no single foster parent could afford to look after four to five orphans under one roof. Given the devastating impact of COVID-19 on families, resulting into four million deaths globally and over 3,000 mortalities in Zambia, this is the situation in which many children find themselves today. There are lots of children in our country who have been deprived of parental care and the much-need moral and material support that they need to grow up in safe and suitable environments because COVID-19 has taken the lives of their beloved parents, grandparents and other relatives that they depended on for survival. Although we do not know how many children have been orphaned by the coronavirus in Zambia, the fact is that there are a lot of breadwinners who have died and left children in vulnerable situations.
I am quite certain that very soon, we will begin to see the negative impact of COVID-19 on families in the form of lack of parental care to affected children, poor nutrition and the number of out-of-school children taking an upward trend.
God forbid that some of the affected children should end up on the streets because the extended family cannot provide them with the much-needed alternative care, shelter, material and moral support. But the danger is imminent if we do not come up with a good plan of how to help such children. The fact is that there has not been a time such as this when children have been orphaned by a pandemic, and in certain cases both parents dying one after the other because of the nature of the COVID-19 contagion. Well, perhaps the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is believed to have claimed over one million lives of human capital in Zambia, had dealt a similar blow on families before the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy in public health facilities.
The difference, though, is that with HIV and AIDS, children were orphaned over a long period of time, but with COVID-19, which is a fast killer, things are happening quite fast. And in certain instances, it is claiming two to three members of one family in quick succession. So the status of children is just changing overnight, and just like that, poverty and destitution set in.
The point I am driving at is that COVID-19 is tearing families apart and taking away parental care and social welfare from children and we cannot sit back and pretend that all is well. What are we doing at family and government level to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on families? The United Nations is concerned about the plight of children who are being left without parental care by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement on Monday, UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore urged governments as well as extended families to do something about it and ensure that affected children are given alternative parental care and do not end up in harm’s way. Ms Fore, in a statement dated July 19, 2021, notes that: “As the official COVID-19 death toll around the world passed four million earlier this month, UNICEF is increasingly concerned about children left without one or both parents. “As with all crises and health pandemics, the most vulnerable children are at increased risk of losing parental care – due to death, severe illness or financial hardship. This in turn increases their risk of being placed in unsuitable alternative care. “While it’s too early to estimate the number of children orphaned or abandoned as a result of the pandemic, a spike in deaths in some countries means many children already vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 face further emotional distress and protection concerns.” UNICEF is worried about the immediate and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic such as separation of families and placement of orphans in unsuitable alternative care, such as institutions. Its worry is that orphaned children may be forced to live in institutions such as orphanages where “they are frequently deprived of the ability to make choices that suit their best interests”. In my view, taking children to orphanages should be the last resort if all efforts to help them within the family fail. Being a typical African community that we are, driven by the spirit of Ubuntu, it will be good if the COVID-19 orphans are looked after by the extended family or by the widowed parents if given the necessary material and moral support. Those who are in a position to help the affected children with such things as alternative parental care or financial support should be able to do so as a way of empowering the kids to look after themselves in future. If the kids are neglected and they end up dropping out of school or in unsafe environments such as the streets, then not only are they going to have a bleak future, but the entire social system will bear the consequences of a lost generation of potential leaders and human capital. Despite these children losing hope for a good future because they have lost one or both parents, the extended family needs to show them that pafwa bantu, pashala bantu (when humans die, other humans survive them), as the Bembas say. I know for a fact that over the years, the extended family has been weakened, but the COVID-19 pandemic should make us reflect and make amends regarding the strong family values that once brought us together as Africans. Of course, the government needs to come in too and provide social safety nets to the widows/widowers and orphans, but the affected people need immediate solutions. Immediate solutions can only be found within the family set up.
UNICEF is prodding governments to come in and ensure that affected families are given continued access to social protection, counselling and health care. Yes, these are good ideas. As a matter of fact, non-governmental organisations also need to come on board and help provide the much-needed aid to affected families so that orphaned children could be looked after in safe environments. If all stakeholders – extended family, the state and non-state parties – play their role, there may be no need for the orphans to end up in unsafe environments or being forced to live in institutions against their will. Phone:0211-221364/227793

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