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‘Hidden pandemic’: Covid orphans thousands of unfortunate children

By Phan Duong   September 16, 2021 | 07:56 pm PT
Khanh Nhu, 13, was left an orphan by the Covid-19 wave sweeping through HCMC that took away her father, mother and grandfather.

Nhu's first day of class on Monday was at the home of her maternal grandparents in southern Dong Nai Province. She began the new school year with new clothes, books and friends. But she is not someone who fancies new things.

"All the things that are familiar to me are in HCMC, including the ashes of my parents and my grandfather," she says.

A few months ago she and her younger brother lived with their parents and grandfather in an apartment on Giai Viet Street, District 8.

Khanh Nhu (L) and Dang Huy now lives at their grandparents house in southern Dong Nai Province. Photo courtesy of Huong

Khanh Nhu (L) and Dang Huy now live in their grandparents' house in Dong Nai Province. Photo courtesy of Huong

On the morning of July 20, their mother was taken to hospital by their grandfather while their father stayed at home. But not long after that he was infected as well. That night an ambulance arrived and a medical worker said, "I am sorry but your dad passed away."

The next morning, six hours after her father's death, Nhu received the news that her mother had also succumbed to Covid. Then her grandfather died three days later.

She and her brother, Dang Huy, 7, are two of thousands of children orphaned by the fourth wave of Covid that began in late April.

More than 1,500 children in HCMC have lost their parents, according to the city Department of Education and Training.

Across the country 16,425 people have died in the ongoing wave, which has infected nearly 652,000 people.

Dan Thanh and Nhat Hao, 11 and 18, of HCMC lost their father a month ago. When they received his ashes, Thanh held it in both hands and trembled.

Their father had been an official at a local residential quarter in Tan Thoi Nhat Ward, District 12. When Covid broke out, he took part in epidemic prevention efforts and contracted the virus in early August. He passed away after around 10 days of treatment at home. The funeral was organized solemnly by local officials.

Dan Thanh holds her fathers image while Nhat Hao carries a bowl of incense during their fathers funeral on August 16, 2021. Photo acquired. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Dan Thanh holds her father's photo while Nhat Hao carries incense at their father's funeral on August 16, 2021. Photo acquired by VnExpress

At a Covid field hospital in HCMC’s Binh Chanh District, doctors see many children who suddenly lose their parents or caregivers.

A nine-year-old boy living in District 8 lost his mother recently. His father had to take care of the funeral and his old mother who is in critical condition. So during that period the boy had to stay at the hospital, where medical staff took care of him.

A seven-year-old girl without parents who was living with her grandparents in District 8 lost her grandmother to the pandemic, while her grandfather was in hospital with Covid. She had to go and live in an acquaintance's house in Long An Province.

According to research published in British medical journal The Lancet in July 2021, more than 1.5 million children worldwide have lost a parent, custodial grandparent or other secondary familial caregiver to Covid.

Another study by the U.S. CDC, USAID, World Bank, and the University of London found that globally, for every two people who died of Covid one child lost a parent or caregiver.

"The worrying thing is that many children may experience psychological trauma after losing loved ones," Dang Hoa Nam, head of the Department of Child Affairs, said.

Nguyen Thi Huong, the grandmother of Nhu and Huy, is concern about her grandchildren's mental health.

Huy still does not understand the significance of his parents’ death, and sometimes cries and asks for his mother.

"Earlier today he cried and refused to eat because the soup I made tasted different to his mother's," Huong says.

But she worries more about Nhu, who is usually in her room, sometimes screaming uncontrollably. She says the girl misses the three dearest people in her life, but keeps her emotions under control because she has to hide the truth from Huy.

Thanh and Hao have been reacting differently to the death of their father. Ngoc Ha, their mother, says Hao hides his emotions while Thanh keeps sobbing. It has been a month now, but every night Thanh looks at her father’s photos on her smartphone, fearful that time would make her forget the person who made her feel warm and secure, she says.

According to psychologist Tran Kim Thanh, children who suddenly lose loved ones, especially parents, have to bear great pain and experience profound psychological crises, both in the short and long terms.

A kid leaves a Covid-19 centralized quarantine facility in HCMCs Thu Duc City in June 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

A kid outside a Covid-19 quarantine facility in HCMC's Thu Duc City in June 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

"Separation from or the sudden loss of loved ones can be too hard for some kids to handle. Some feel helpless while some experience other feelings like guilt, bitterness and isolation."

Experts fear that with all attention focused on fighting the epidemic, people may forget that children orphaned by Covid-19 are also a "hidden pandemic."

They explain that in addition to emotional support from family and society, it is necessary to provide counseling to such children.

Many government agencies and organizations have stepped in to help young children come to terms with this harsh reality.

On September 11 the HCMC Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs announced a monthly subsidy program for orphans affected by Covid-19.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhung, vice chairwoman of the city unit of the Ho Chi Minh Young Pioneers Organization, says she has set up a scholarship program that will fund the education of children affected by the epidemic until they finish high school. Now, a month after its launch, it has awarded the scholarships to 385 children.

After her first online lesson, Nhu got to know her new teachers and classmates. She says she had always dreamed of becoming a teacher, but from now "I will pursue my dream of becoming a doctor."

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