Covid orphan multitasks, studying and caring for disabled brother

By Phan Duong   December 22, 2021 | 05:00 am PT
After losing his grandfather and parents in quick succession, Bao takes care of his elder brother with Down syndrome and is determined to well in school. He’s 16.

Losing three loved in two weeks is never easy and when two of them are your parents, the loss is overwhelming.

But Nguyen Duc Bao could not afford to mourn for long. He had a 23-year-old elder brother with Down’s syndrome to care for.

One recent morning, Bao was busy cleaning up around his house in HCMC's Thu Duc City when he heard his physics teacher call his name out. Bao dropped the broom and rushed to sit in front of the computer. But he could not answer the teacher's question.

"You should pay more attention in class," the teacher chided.

Nguyen Duc Bao attends online classed at home in HCMCs Thu Duc City in early November 2021. Photo courtesy of Bao

Nguyen Duc Bao attends an online class at home in HCMC's Thu Duc City, November 2021. Photo courtesy of Bao

Bao has been missing "5-10 minutes of lectures" over the past two months because he has to do house chores and take care of his brother, having taken up the reins of the family after both his parents died of Covid-19.

As of October, HCMC had recorded over 2,000 children orphaned by Covid-19, the number including those who lost one or both parents or their legal guardians.

"The sudden death of my father stunned the whole family," the high school student recalled, remembering the tragic night of August 7.

"After father returned home from receiving the Covid vaccine, he became feverish and we thought it was just a normal reaction. But his fever didn't subside and his condition got worse.

"While I was putting on a shirt to get ready to take my father to the hospital, my grandfather collapsed on the floor. While I was in the hospital with Dad, my grandfather died."

A few days later, his father succumbed to the disease’s complications. And before Bao could give his father a proper funeral, he and his mother and brother were taken to a field hospital in District 12 after all three tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

For the first two days, they slept on the same 12th floor, then the mother got weaker and was moved to the ground floor. The older brother also developed a high fever and refused to eat or drink. As a result, Bao had to go up and down the stairs constantly, trying to take care of both of them.

After seven days, the hospital allowed the two brothers to quarantine themselves at home, while the mother, whose health had worsened, was transferred to another place.

"I prayed hard for a miracle to happen, but, at 5 a.m. on August 22, the hospital called to inform me that my mother had passed away."

Bao's father, a middle school math teacher, was 67 when he died, and his mother, a preschool teacher, was 58.

No time to mourn

At first, the grief-stricken boy felt sorry for himself, having his life turned on its head without notice. But he did not have the luxury of mourning or bemoaning his fate for long.

A week after he lost his grandfather and both his parents, he decided he had to pull himself up and reorganize his life.

Today, he wakes up at 5 a.m. to study and make breakfast for himself and his brother before classes begin at 7 a.m. Unable to avoid multitasking, he devised "a method to study while cleaning the house" or "study while cooking rice and washing vegetables".

His uncles and aunts who live nearby have helped out by bringing lunch home every day, so Bao only has to cook dinner.

At first, his aunt taught him how to make braised meat, fish and soups. Now he is confident that he can go to the market to buy ingredients and cook tasty dishes.

He also taught himself how to make pasta, pizza, and sandwiches to add diversity to his diet and stimulate his brother to eat more.

Since his parents had taken care of his elder brother’s every need, Bao found it very hard to connect with his special needs sibling in the beginning.

"Remember to take care of your brother." This was the last thing his mother told Bao before she was transferred to another hospital for Covid patients with severe symptoms.

Then, Bao did not cry as looked into his mother's eyes so that she could feel assured. He knew that if his father could have said one last thing before he died, he would have certainly said the same thing.

A photo of Baos family taken at a church in Thu Duc City in 2019. Photo courtesy of Bao

A photo of Bao's family taken at a church in Thu Duc City in 2019. Photo courtesy of Bao

Just months later, Bao feels that taking care of his brother is not as difficult as he thought it would be. His older brother is obedient and watches cartoons or draws pictures whenever Bao attends online classes.

At 23, the elder brother was still like a baby. Initially he did not know that their parents had passed away and kept asking why mom had to be in the hospital for so long. Bao would lie and tell him that he should eat well, sleep well and "mom will come back tomorrow."

The brother only learnt the truth when neighbors and Bao's classmates came over to express condolences after his mother had passed away. Bao said he became very quiet and did not eat for a few days.

Spending more time his brother, Bao no longer feels that that he was taking care of him because it was his responsibility, but because he loves his brother.

Apart from ensuring that the brother is comfortable in all kinds of weather, Bao tries to cook delicious dishes for him.

There are days that his brother eats two full bowls because the food is tasty and it makes Bao very happy. Sometimes, the younger brother skips class to watch cartoons with his brother or read stories to him.

Nguyen Thi Cam Trinh, a math teacher at the Nguyen Huu Huan Secondary School, said that Bao's parents' pension was less than VND10 million (around $434), so it was not often enough to feed their two children and get medical treatment. Therefore, Bao's father had to offer private tuition and earn more money.

"When I heard that Bao's father had died, I called his mother. She was very sad and afraid that she wouldn't have the financial capability to raise the two children on her own. It is tragic that she also passed away not long after," Trinh said.

So far, the authorities, schools, parents' associations and relatives have encouraged and shared the economic burden of the two brothers.

Bao does not have to worry about the financial part for the next two years of high school. But "I'm worried that when I turn 18, the support will stop. I am worried that at that time, I will not be able to afford the cost of college and taking care of my brother."

At 5:30 p.m. every day, Bao and his brother have made it a practice to stand in front of the TV screen and attend an online church service, sending prayers for their parents.

At the moment, Bao spends more time on studying math. He has set himself the goal of winning the national math competition, saying his father had instilled in him a love for math from a young age and his mother always told him to study hard.

The determined teenager said: "I want to win a medal in tribute to my parents."

VnExpress's Hope Foundation has launched a fundraising campaign to deliver 1,500 Lunar New Year gifts to Covid-19 orphans in Ho Chi Minh City and southern provinces. For more information about how to donate, click here

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