Orphans of Covid-19, the hidden pandemic

Cape Town – Prostitution, dropping out of school to find work to feed siblings and loss of homes to cover funeral costs are some of the harsh realities that Covid-19 orphans face faced as the pandemic wreaks havoc on older caregivers.

Orphanages in the Western Cape have said they have been inundated with requests to care for children in children’s homes since the pandemic began to spread across the country.

A study published last week found that South Africa has recorded one of the highest numbers of primary caregiver deaths in the world. Between March 2020 and April this year, the study found that 82,422 children were orphans and 94,625 others had lost their primary guardians.

UCT, in partnership with the University of Oxford, conducted the research.

Co-author of the study, Professor Lucie Cluve said that one in 200 South African children had lost a primary caregiver. Other countries with similar statistics are Peru, the United States, India, Brazil, and Mexico.

In the Western Cape, institutions said a grandparent and an elderly aunt were the main caregivers due to the drug scourge, the HIV epidemic and high unemployment.

Department of Social Development spokesman Joshua Chigome said the province has seven child-headed households.

This has been questioned by non-governmental organizations who say this is not their reality on the ground.

Rosie Mashale, who runs Baphumelele Children’s Home in Khayelitsha, said: “We are at full capacity at the moment, but we are getting requests for help on a daily basis, but we cannot help. Placement takes place in a central office managed by the Department of Social Development.

“We saw so many children arriving last year unlike previous years because of Covid-19. In the past we would see new children arriving every two or three months, but now the demands have increased.

“The center can accommodate 106 children but we (have) 112 because of the emergency placements. So many children find themselves without a family to care for them, either both parents have died or grandparents or close relatives have also died. “

She said they had to start a new program to help households made up only of children they could not accommodate at the facility.

“We created a program to help them with psychosocial support, food packages especially when we hit lockdown level 5 and we created soup kitchens.

“We also help with school uniforms, help access birth certificates, provide them with (informal) structures to live on because most of the time, when there is no money to bury parents, the house family is sold to pay for the funeral and the children are left homeless.

“There is a great need and an even greater need for funding. The department cannot say that there are only seven child-headed households in the province when the needs are so great in Khayelitsha alone.

Another orphanage in Cape Town said it worked with 15 child-headed households.

“We have seen a huge increase in primary caregivers like your grandparents, aunts and uncles who have sadly lost their lives due to complications from Covid-19 and all of a sudden children have to drop out of school to feed their youngsters siblings because the breadwinner and the primary caregiver has passed away, ”said the organization’s employee, who declined to be named in case it affected government funding.

“As an organization, we do our best to fill in the gaps and provide for basic needs so that the children can continue to go to school and that we take care of the siblings.

“We work with 65 children, 15 of whom are from child-headed households. We can accommodate 10 children. There may be others, but due to the limited resources we face there is not much we can do. “

She said older children in these households make tough decisions just to put food on the table.

“Most of them work or find other means of earning a living, such as prostitution. We are trying to make them the primary caregivers so that they can apply for and access foster care grants for their younger siblings.

“Even though the primary caregivers have to be at least 16 years old, sometimes you are as young as 11 and that’s where social workers would look for placements or other homes. “

Bonteheuwel community leader Henriette Abrahams said circumstances exist in their community where children, who were not even orphans, find themselves living in child-headed households.

“Their parents are unable to take care of them because of drug addiction or they are not present in the lives of these children… children who suffer from neglect, abuse, starvation, live in poverty and have need care, ”she said.

These children survive on feeding programs.

“We see them lining up for food, some family members even split up and go to different soup kitchens to get food.

“But children have become more vulnerable over the past year, either because of the death of primary caregivers, the loss of the sole breadwinner’s job, or the parents’ drug use.

“It’s sad and we need the government to step up, Langa and Bonteheuwel combined only have about five social workers who are either on sick leave or in isolation and therefore cannot deal with these issues. They (the government) don’t have specific numbers on children because they are not on the ground.

Chigome, however, said that when it came to child-headed households, children were only removed if they were at risk and placed with a family or foster family.

He said the department had partnered with organizations to provide social support, food packages, toiletries and school transportation.

Lori Lake of UCT Children Institute said: ‘We don’t have data to get any idea of ​​what happens to orphan rates during Covid, there are global modeled estimates that suggest this is ‘a serious concern, particularly in South Africa where children may be already living with grandmothers, who were at greater risk of contracting Covid or serious infection and the risk of dying.

“But we don’t have a clear system to identify if there are any children left at home when adults are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 or if they die. “

She said surveillance systems need to be strengthened to help children who may be vulnerable not only because of the orphanage, but also in cases where their primary caregivers may have gone to the hospital and left home with children. younger children.

“There is a lot of work that is needed to strengthen social work or child protection services for children across the country,” Lake said.

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