News - January 22, 2024 | 11:57 pm PT

Covid's orphans barely surviving

Many children in Vietnam who lost their parents to Covid aren't getting by as support from the outside world is unsustainable.

Lam in the attic of his house in HCMC. He lost his mother to cancer in 2017, and four years later, Covid took away his aunt who had filled in his mother's position.

It has been 6 years since Tuyet Nghi and her sister and brother had hamburgers, which used to be their favorite treat. The last time they went to buy burgers was on an afternoon in February 2017. When they returned home, their mother was already lying cold on the bed.

Nghi, also known as Xu, 18, has a very hazy memory of her mother's illness. She only recalls lumps growing on her mother’s body out of the blue and when they got to the hospital, the cancer was said to have been terminal. She was discharged after less than a month of treatment, before passing away two days before Tet, Vietnam’s biggest holiday, which is focused on family gatherings.

Nghi and her sister Nhat Ha, 16, and brother Thien Lam, 10, then agreed among themselves that they would never again eat hamburgers, nor enjoy Tet.

(From L) Thien Lam, Nhat Ha, and Tuyet Nghi visit their mother’s ashes at a temple in HCMC.

Filling the void

The three siblings do not mention their father unless absolutely necessary.

After their mother died, he took them away from the house where they had lived with their mother's sister and brother and spent their entire childhood. They moved to a motel nearly 2 km away. Their father was quiet most of the time. Less than a month later, the children's mother's sister came to visit and saw them lying with their legs curled up in a tiny room, with no trace of their father. She insisted on bringing them back home. From then on, their aunt became their mother figure.

Their father also moved back to the old neighborhood, staying in a rented room across the alley from his three children, but they rarely saw him. No one had his phone number, he only showed up when he wanted to.

"I don't know why, but I don't like living with dad," Ha said, her eyes staring off into the distance.

Auntie did her best to fill the void left by the children's mother.

Every morning, she took them to school, and they even called her "Mama." When they got home, meals were ready. The three children's lives were almost never out of her sight, and if they skipped school and went out late, she would definitely catch them.

One time, Ha skipped school to wander around a supermarket, starting at stuffed animals, stroking and touching them. Then she was startled to see Mama standing behind her. Nghi also skipped school several times to go to the Internet cafe and was caught red-handed by Mama. Lam never dared to go too far from his house, because if Mama had to go to even just explore the alley to look for him, he would get a big scolding. Mama never revealed how she found them so effectively.

When the three sisters had just got used to their new life, Covid struck and took Mama away.

Lam walks inside the house he lives with his two sisters, his uncle, the uncle’s four children.

"Mama is gone," Huynh Bao Long, 51, Mama's younger brother, told the three children one morning in August 2021. He had admitted her to hospital the night before. And like bad news that just won’t stop the three children lost their mother again when they woke up the next morning. For the second time in 4 years, just like last time, they didn't get to say goodbye.

They have not mentioned Mama unless asked. Because every time Mama is mentioned, Nghi and Ha cry uncontrollably. Lam no longer cried, perhaps because he was the only one who at least met Mama regularly in his dreams while he slept.

Long took on the responsibility of being the children’s caregiver, alongside his own four children born by a woman who had left him.

Together, they live in a house 2.8 m wide, 11 m long, with an attic.

The three orphans often lock themselves in the attic - where their parents' old room used to be. They only came down when it was time to eat. The attic has a corrugated iron roof so it bakes like an oven in the summer. There are buckets and pots all corners of the house to catch water leaking from the ceiling every time it rains.

Three siblings, Nghi, Ha and Lam, play in their own room, where their parents used to live.

Long did not know how to comfort the three children. In the past, only his sister had been able to really converse with them.

After the epidemic ended, life has somewhat returned to its old routine. Ha and Lam go to school every day. Nghi, after graduating from high school, has stayed home and taken over Mama's role - keeping the kitchen hot for three meals a day. The three children live in their own world, only speaking when asked and only appearing when looked for.

They are freer than before.

Lam can skip lunch and go out for 5 hours without being scolded. Nghi and Ha sometimes go out until midnight without anyone looking for them or urging them to go home.

The only interruption the children have these days is the charity groups that pay them visits.

These visits have bestowed on them gifts from tablets, to notebooks, to motorbikes.

The three children have gradually gotten used to groups of strangers coming and going, and then rarely seeing them again.

"I feel lonely," Ha said, hugging her pillow.

The siblings’ lives are no longer objectively "too hard" on the outside, materialistically. They have enough to eat, enough to wear, they get to go to school.

But now they actually miss the scoldings, and delicious meals, from Mama.

Of the nearly 4,500 children orphaned by Covid in Vietnam, more than half are in Ho Chi Minh City – 2,339 children. Two years after the pandemic, most are still in the process of learning to live with the greatest loss of their lives.

Losing a breadwinner

Tran Ngoc Minh Khoi and his younger sister Tran Ngoc Bao Tran are dealing with the loss differently. They’ve been working hard trying to replace their father as breadwinner.

After he died of Covid in August two years ago, the two children saw how clearly stressed out their mother was about money. They never asked her for anything, and then eventually offered to make money themselves.

"Can I quit school and go to work to support you and my sister?" Khoi, 13, asked his mother in a deep, decisive voice. The boy was eager to take on the responsibility of the only son in the family.

"I can draw pictures and sell them for 50 dollars each. I draw well," said Tran, 7, in kind-hearted competition with his brother.

La Thi Ngoc Tuyet (R) and her two children - Tran Ngoc Minh Khoi (L) and Tran Ngoc Bao Tran.

Their mother, La Thi Ngoc Tuyet, 46, then had two strokes that caused her to lose sight in her left eye. The illness also caused speech disorder. She could only babble and could not annunciate or understand complete words. Half of her body was paralyzed and after a year of treatment she was able to walk, but only slowly, and she was unable to do any work heavier than that.

After getting married at the age of 32, she had stayed home to be a housewife, leaving the task of money-making to her husband. She forgot how to ride a motorbike and all the knowledge she'd gained previously studying pharmacy school.

For her and her children, her husband was the source of life, in every sense. They were not prepared to face the tragedy of losing him.

After his death, Tuyet sold her house on Co Bac Street, District 1 - where she was born - to move to a cheaper place in Binh Thanh District, 5 km away.

Tran Ngoc Minh Khoi and Tran Ngoc Bao Tran play with a tennis ball in the alley near their new house.

A relative took the registration book of the new house and the remaining money from selling the old house, used Tuyet’s name to borrow VND50 million (US$2,036) from a bank's special loans for poor people, and then disappeared. Tuyet and her children became unregistered residents. They thus could not receive any kind of government's support for Covid-19 victims. Ward officials and police advised her to file a lawsuit to get her documents and papers back, but she didn't know how to do so.

She is now unemployed, crippled by the loan interest, and the charity money has run out. For months, she even thought about letting one of her children quit school because she could not afford fees.

She had to sell the bicycle that a benefactor gifted her son for VND500,000, and even that was not enough to pay for school.

She planned to sell her and her husband's wedding rings - which were blessed by a priest on the day they got married, but then she couldn't do it emotionally. They are the only memento of her husband, and they make her feel that he is still around, blessing her and their children.

Tough children

One year after her husband died, Tuyet took her children for a mental health check-up, under a support program for orphans due to Covid. Khoi was diagnosed with depression. Only then did Tuyet understand why her son remained silent for several months, and always locked himself in his room after school.

The boy has grown much mature than his age.

After what he called "eventful" days, he gave himself the responsibility of managing his and his sister's studies. He always finishes all the assignments, and then completes even more exercises he finds online. His school scores are excellent every semester and he also mentors his sister.

The two children told each other to minimize all their needs and expenses. Many days, when their mother doesn't have money to buy food, they just eat rice with soy sauce.

But many nights, when the whole family goes to bed, Khoi would sit below his father's altar and whispers a prayer: "Losing you is so painful. But I will try to take care of my mother and sister. Please bless us, father."

Tran Ngoc Minh Khoi helps his sister with her studies.

A bridge too far?

Psychologist Vuong Nguyen Toan Thien, Deputy Director of the Psychology Program at Hoa Sen University in HCMC, said: "The time it takes each child to overcome pain is different. Some people need 3 months, 1 year, even 10 years or a lifetime."

According to Thien, avoiding talking about it, trying to forget it, or worrying too much are signs that children need help to recover from trauma. That help includes support from society to ensure basic living needs are met; and spiritual resilience from within - coming from each child's internal strength, and the sharing of hardships and troubles with relatives.

Missing either one, or having help interrupted midway, can make their recovery difficult, he said.

Ho Chi Minh City issued its own policy to support children orphaned by Covid with VND480,000 to 1.2 million per child per month, depending on the case. Along with that, many organizations also set up programs to support these children.

However, caregivers like Long and Tuyet cannot avoid the feeling of uncertainty and worry about the disruptions of support.

In 2022, a charity program connected 1,541 children orphaned by Covid with godmothers until the age of 18, for monthly support of VND500,000 to 2 million monthly. Lam was among them, sponsored by a mother from Hai Phong whom he has never met. But Long only received the godmother's money for a few months. He did not try to contact her because "it's voluntary."

Last year, an organization promised to support his orphaned nieces and nephew until the age of 18, but at the end of the year they stopped "without saying anything." Visits from benefactors are also becoming less frequent.

Ha and Lam, as children under 18, are still receiving several million dong in charity each month from different funds, but he is not sure the support is as sustainable as promised. His monthly salary of less than VND10 million is not enough to take care of all the children.

Tuyet's financial problems are even worse as she has no stable job. She used to clean people's houses and peel onions and garlic for hire, but after a few days, they let her go for being "too slow."

She recently ran around government and charity offices from Binh Thanh District to District 1, abandoning all her pride to try to look for help so that her children could have a cozy Lunar New Year Festival, but it has been all in vain.

Tuyet’s children, Khoi and Tran, hang out in their house.

Pham Dinh Nghinh, Vice Chairman of the Association for the Protection of Children's Rights, said the fact that orphans' support program do not last long is an undesirable reality.

Many businesses suffered difficulties post Covid, so they have found it hard to maintain charity work.

Nghinh said that government agencies at the lowest level play a decisive role in preventing disruption in the support for orphans. Families need to notify local authorities if support for them is suddenly stopped, he said.

The five orphans from these two families have no distant dreams.

Every time Khoi visits his father's tomb, he prays that his mother won't have to worry about school fees anymore. Nghi only wishes for two things: for her younger brother and sister to be able to finish high school, and for the leaky roof to be repaired soon so that on rainy nights, they can be sound asleep.

(*) Images used in this article have been provided with permission from the children and their families.

Story by Thu Hang
Photos by Phung Tien

The Tet of Hope program gives thousands of gifts each year to bring a warmer Lunar New Year holiday to orphans, disabled children, lonely elderly people... Support the program here.