Covid-19 News

COVID-19 deaths: SA children pay the ultimate price

Close to 100 000 South African children have lost either their parents or caregivers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Written by Zodidi Mhlana

South African children have been hit hard by COVID-19 with almost 100 000 kids losing either parents or primary caregivers during the ongoing pandemic.

This has seen the country record one of the highest rates of children affected by COVID-19 associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers as published by Lancet earlier this year.

*Sixteen-year-old Litha’s whose father died from the virus last year, says the support he gets from his mother and teachers at school has helped him.

“My mother has been telling me to be strong and focus on my school work. I am able to be strong.  My other teacher has been supportive too,” said the Khayelitsha teen.

Jelly Beanz, an organisation in Cape Town which provides hope for children affected by trauma and abuse, helps young people like Litha. Yonela Tanase, a social worker at the centre, says COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on children.

Helping children heal through play

The centre uses art and memory boxes to help the children heal.

“We do play therapy. It’s encouraging for children when they are playing. They show us more when they are playing,” she says.

Tanase says some children speak mostly about the things they would have wanted to share with their parents or caregivers.

Children were encouraged to fill the memory boxes with objects that reminded them of their parents or caregivers.

“We try to create a way in which they can remember happier times together. It would include pictures, even the things the child and the parent enjoyed doing together.”

Keeping memories alive

Tanase said the purpose of the activity was to preserve the memories of the deceased family member in the children’s minds.

“It’s a way of keeping the person alive in your heart and their memory,” she said. “I think one child had a seawater bottle because she had memories of them when they would enjoy going to the beach. So, anything that makes them feel close to their parents, we put in stories because children love telling stories. It helps to have one thing to hold onto,” she said.

Children sometimes have to move in with extended family members. She recalled one incident where a Mitchells Plain mother succumbed to the virus and left three children behind.

“When the case came to our attention, it had been a month without their mom and the neighbours stepped in. The oldest child was only 15-years-old and caring for siblings who were 12 and 10.”

The children were unaware that their mother had died on the day she was admitted to hospital.

“The hospital did not know who to call or reach. The mom was on the verge of being cremated because no family member had come forward to claim the body,” says Tanase. The three children relocated with their maternal relatives to Franschoek.

Losing a mom and grandmother

In another case, Tanase helped two children who lost both their mother and grandmother within a month.

“The mother and maternal grandmother died one week apart, so she had to say goodbye to both within a couple of weeks.

“The grandmother was the first person to be hospitalised for health reasons. The mom also fell ill during that time before being hospitalised and passing away a week later. They were both primary caregivers to the children, aged 10 and 14,” she added.

Strong family support systems crucial

Tanase stressed the importance of strengthening family support systems for grieving children.

“I believe a lot of healing happens in relationships, and not feeling alienated. Children need to receive the counselling they need and love. Conversations between them and family members are important. Most therapy happens in relations that are already there. The support the community can offer to the children is important,” she said.

The study also found that losing a primary caregiver increases the risk of mental health problems, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and poverty among children.

Childline inundated with calls

Dumisile Nala, Childline South Africa’s national executive officer, said the counselling service was inundated with COVID-19 related calls from children.

“Calls of deaths and bereavement are coming. In most cases, a parent passes away and a child has to be taken care of by an extended family member,” she said.

Nala said children are left vulnerable to abuse after losing their parents.

She recalled one case involving a 16-year-old girl who was raped after her mother died in June.

“A concerned neighbour called seeking advice for a 16-year-old who had become a victim of rape by men in the location. According to neighbours, the parent of the girl passed on and the cause of death was COVID-19. The child was in the care of an older sister who is an alcoholic and lives a nomadic lifestyle. The rape was reported to the police and the case is under investigation.”

Support needed

Nala urged families to talk to children about death and offer support to grieving children. She said seeking professional help in terms of coping was significant. She said children also tend to reach out to their peers for support.

Sixteen-year-old Mpho agreed that the pandemic had worsened mental health issues, and said he leaned on friends for support.

“When you talk to your peers, you feel comfortable. You feel that they hear what you have to say without any judgments,” he said.

Having to say goodbye forever

Children’s rights activist, Joan van Niekerk, said COVID-19 deaths were happening suddenly and unpredictably, depriving children of ways of grieving.

“Children also need to mourn death but the inability to say goodbye makes it worse. When they are cut off from mourning, it’s difficult for them to get an understanding that this person is not coming back. I can remember one child asking me in my office: ‘Is my mom coming back?’ It was so hard for her to understand that mommy was gone and is ‘gone forever’. It’s the finality of it that is a struggle,” said van Niekerk.

COVID-19 versus HIV/AIDS

She said that during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, parents prepared their children for death.

“People got sick and often the illness was long and lingering. (But), children had the opportunity to say their goodbyes to their loved ones,” she added. Families also had time to prepare and decide who would care for the children.

“Organisations prepared people to talk to children about death and to make decisions about who they would live with.”

Van Nierkerk said that some schools and teachers have been helping children cope with trauma.

“Schools and even curriculums can help prepare children for finality. Our society has endured trauma upon trauma. We need to address the issue of healing seriously,” she concluded. – Health-e News

*Litha’s name has been changed.

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Zodidi Mhlana

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