Covid-19 orphans on the rise as virus claims caregivers

When a single Mpumalanga mother died of Covid-19 last month, her three children, aged between nine and 15, did not only lose their only parent and caregiver, but their primary social support structure. The 47-year-old from a small rural village outside Siyabuswa was a domestic worker, a single parent putting food on the table and building a home for her children. "What is going to be of her children now? They have a lot to deal with…the loss, grief, the stigma, anxiety and uncertainty about the future. On top of that, they have to now go live with relatives. That...
When a single Mpumalanga mother died of Covid-19 last month, her three children, aged between nine and 15, did not only lose their only parent and caregiver, but their primary social support structure.

The 47-year-old from a small rural village outside Siyabuswa was a domestic worker, a single parent putting food on the table and building a home for her children.

"What is going to be of her children now? They have a lot to deal with…the loss, grief, the stigma, anxiety and uncertainty about the future. On top of that, they have to now go live with relatives. That can be a lot for a child to deal with and could lead to other social problems," Lulu Ngwenya from Siyabuswa said.

She said the children's dire situation was exacerbated by the stigma associated with the virus, resulting in them not talking about their plight and suffering in silence as a result.

Child welfare organisations have been overwhelmed with calls about orphans in need of emotional and basic material support.

Manette de Jager, chairperson and founder of TygerBear Foundation for Traumatised Children and Families, said the pandemic was particularly fatal on elderly people, in many cases grandparents who are caregivers to orphaned children.

She said they had a case where an orphaned boy was left with no primary caregiver when his grandfather died of Covid-19.

"This loss of a parent or grandparent can be a very traumatic experience for a five-year-old child and the child will need emotional support and long-term therapy. We have received many distressed calls related to Covid-19 deaths. Our approach is that we address two issues; emotional support and the basic needs not only for the child but for the entire family," De Jager said.

De Jager said dealing with trauma of families losing their loved ones and support structures to the Covid-19 has been a learning curve for them too as therapists.

She said the lockdown regulations and social distancing measures made intervention challenging as offering emotional support to a child, from a distance, was impossible.

"You have to explain to the child why and they become anxious because that is a lot to process for a child. We have develop what we call a play-talk, using teddy bears to talk to a child in a playful manner, in a level that they better understand."

TygerBear Foundation is based in the Western Cape, one of the provinces greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Joan van Niekerk, founder and director of Childline SA, said children were in greater emotional need due to Covid-19 social devastations, saying losing a parent could lead to fear and panic.

She said families should recognise that these were times of great need for children going through the loss of a parent or caregiver, saying this was the time to exploit that extended family line.

"The issue of children who have lost parents to Covid-19 is something really concerning. Imagine you are a child, your mother has passed on and you have no money to buy electricity. That darkness, what it does to you. We need that sense of shared responsibility," Van Niekerk said.

She said the disruption of schooling has also disrupted the second layer of support to children, denying them the opportunity to have their friends help them grieve.

siphom@citizen.co.za

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