Helping Nepal’s Covid orphansAn estimated 1,200 children who lost their parents to the pandemic struggle to get by
Eight-year-old Bhuvan Kharel used to start his day with a glass of milk in bed brought to him by his father. Yadav Kharel would then prepare a lunch box for his son, drop him off at school and in the afternoon bring him back home.
Born to the Kharel couple in Panchkhal of Kavre district after 12 years of marriage, Yadav raised his son with care and affection. He used to carry the boy on his back to and from school every day. Bhuvan was equally attached to his Dad, they were inseparable.
But on 2 June 2020, Bhuvan lost his father to Covid-19. Since then, the boy has withdrawn from friends and stopped going outdoors. He has lost his appetite and rarely speaks. The fourth-grader at a school in Panchkhal was a class topper, but has now lost his enthusiasm for studies.
“He used to revise his lessons every morning and evening with his dad. But without him, he has lost interest in everything,” says his mother Laxmi, who is yet to pay Rs250,000 in hospital bills and another Rs50,000 she borrowed for the last rites of her husband.
Yadav wanted to see his son grow up with a good education but Laxmi is now struggling with schooling Bhuvan with limited income. She says, “How can a single mother without an income give her son a better future?”
Bishnu Tamang died of Covid-19 at Dhulikhel Hospital in July, 18 days after giving birth to a son. Her husband Min Bahadur Tamang was then infected and in isolation. The couple’s daughters Anju, 12, and Aarti, 10, have now taken it upon themselves to raise their newborn brother.
“My eldest gets up at 5 in the morning to feed and clothe her brother, washes his diapers and looks after him until he sleeps at night,” says Min Bahadur. “Since getting Covid, I haven’t been able to regain my health, and my own parents are old. These two daughters do everything to take care of the family.”
Anju, who is in 6th grade, has not been able to touch her books for months. When her mother was alive, she and her sister helped their mother. Now they have to do everything themselves, and there is no time for online classes.
Min Bahadur knows he has to send his daughters back to school, but he has lost his job as a driver. He says: “It will probably take over a year for me to pay off my Covid treatment costs, how will I educate my children?”
At 20, Rajkumar BK is already the sole guardian of three younger siblings. First, he lost his mother to Covid in August 2020, then his father earlier this year. “My father was depressed after my mother passed away. One day when no one was at home, he set himself on fire,” recalls Rajkumar.
Unable to raise them all, Rajkumar left two older siblings in the care of a relative and got married at 20 to support his family. He exchanged his dreams of higher studies for cheap labour and now works at a handicraft shop in Lalitpur’s Gwarko earning Rs12,000 a month.
His 16-years-old brother Shyam is undergoing training to repair mobile phones. Rajkumar is already deep in debt building the house after the fire from his father’s suicide and his mother’s hospital bills.
Adds Rajkumar: “I couldn’t continue my studies, but I thought at least my siblings could go to school. But after losing also my father, I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
Divindra Tamang died of Covid at Kathmandu Medical College in May. His two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Rubina still does not know that her father is gone. Every time she hears a car pass by, she rushes out of the house, looking for her father who was a driver.
"He always honked when he came back from work, so whenever she heard a horn, she thought he might have returned," says Rubina's mother Rupa, who had married Divindra only three years ago.
After their daughter was born, Divindra had bought insurance for Rs900,000 for Rubina’s higher studies, and wanted her to become a nurse. “It is time to pay the Rs25,000 annual premium, but after buying food and paying rent there is no money,” says Rupa.
Siblings Rupa, Susmita, Usha and Rupak Sunar range in age from 3 to 15. They first lost their father to asthma and then mother to Covid in the last three years. With no one to take care of them, the children are now at the SOS Children’s Village in Kavre.
Nearly 11,000 Nepalis have lost their lives to Covid-19 since the outbreak began in January 2020, most of them in the age group 20-50, but there are also children under 18. Hundreds of children have become orphans in the wake of the pandemic.
There are no reliable statistics since the country does not have a proper child protection system at local government level. So far, data from only 32 out of 753 local municipalities have been recorded, where 224 children have lost their parents, seven of them lost both fathers and mothers.
“The rescue, assistance and protection of children without parents cannot be done on time because of the lack of data,” says Milan Raj Dharel, executive director of the National Child Rights Council (NCRC). “We estimate that we are missing more than a thousand children who have lost their parents.”
The NCRC says it is paying for the support of orphaned children at the recommendation of the local levels. But local wards and village councils have not come forward with records of children despite written letters to do so, adds Dharel.
Losing parents at a young age has left the children mentally vulnerable and at heightened risk of psychological illnesses. Bhuvan Kharel, 8, has taken to locking himself in his room and inflicting self-harm.
“He has four cuts on his hand,” says his worried mother, Laxmi. She is too busy taking care of the family’s needs to attend to her son.
“Children are often most affected by conflicts, epidemics, accidents, and their young minds are highly vulnerable, which in turn affects their personality development,” says psychiatrist Prasad Ojha. “The uneasiness they show in their behaviour when a family loses a member is called a neurotic disorder. ”
Orphaned children feel alone, insecure, are scared and angry, and often unable to sleep and have panic attacks. Depending on their personality, some like to be alone while others become restless.
“The family should keep the children busy, play together, develop a routine and make them follow it,” says Arun Kunwar, a psychiatrist at Kanti Children’s Hospital in Kathmandu.
Child experts also recommend not telling children about financial stress in the family, or hiding the death of the parent. “If you lie to children, they will continue to wait for them causing further confusion and stress, which in turn can increase the risk of depression, running away, suicide attempts, and addiction," adds Ojha.
The Children's Act 2019/20 has a provision of a child rights committee at every province and local level in addition to a child welfare officer. It also stipulates establishing a child fund for immediate rescue, relief, rehabilitation of and compensation for children.
But less than 10% of local governments have abided by the Act, which means there are no reliable records about the condition and the number of orphans, homeless and needy children who need rescue and protection.
Last year, NCRC formulated an action plan to protect and manage the children who have lost their parents to Covid-19 and came up with two strategies: for the 800-900 of children with relatives to provide a social security allowance of Rs30,000, and to place children who have no one to care for them in shelters.
For this, the Council is re-examining and verifying the recorded 224 orphaned children from 32 local municipalities and is planning to construct 10 alternative care centres for them.
But despite the plan, the budget has not been allocated by the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens because it does not have a minister since Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is yet to expand his Cabinet more than two months after taking office.
However, spokesperson Umesh Dhugana at the ministry says: “The program hasn’t stalled in lack of a minister. The cabinet will decide on the programs to ensure the protection and management of the children.”
(Translated by Sonia Awale from the the Nepali original in the September-October issue of Himal Khabarpatrika.)