Immediate global and local responses to the pandemic have been ultimately focused on public health necessities – preventing the spread of infections, advancing treatment, reducing mortality and developing and distributing vaccines. Data on death and illness have a clear focused attention on the tragic and disproportionate burden among older adults, yet this has served to deflect attention and understanding away from the needs of children.
Since the onset of the pandemic, a new term was coined for children who lost their parents as a result of the virus. They are called, “COVID-19 orphans”.
UNICEF describes orphanhood as the death of one or both parents or the death of a caregiver . Orphanhood and caregiver deaths affected one of the most vulnerable members of our society; children.
OrphanCare Foundation Chief Executive Officer Datin Paduka Che Asmah was doubtful about the figures KPWKM provided on COVID-19 orphans, who believes that the number should be even higher given the number of deaths that were rising at the time of comment.
The lack of accurate figures suggests that the tragedy is both understated and underreported. The death of parents or caregivers in childhood would also bring about mental health concerns, poverty, neglect and abuse.
What makes their struggles different from other orphans?
For children, the sudden death of a parent or caregivers and abrupt changes to their environment and lifestyles causes a devastating and long-term impact on their economic, physical and emotional welfare. Considering how the onset of COVID-19 progresses so quickly, there is little to no time for children to process their parents’ rapid decline of health and losing their lives.
Grief and bereavement is a process that requires time and being amid a pandemic, the inability to grapple with the loss would only deteriorate into life-long mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorders, depression and anxiety . Not just that, it permeates into socio-economic issues, for example, dropping out of schools and increased sexual risk behaviours.
All this has happened too fast, as if it was our scariest nightmare. Although I am not that strong, I must persevere for my younger brother and sister and treat what has happened as fated. – Imran Muzakkir Mohd Isram, a sixteen year old who lost his parents to Covid-19
Families, not orphanages
The long-standing solution of relocating orphans to orphanages or boarding schools after the loss of their caregivers is misconstrued. The shortcomings of both private and public residential care facilities such as its negative impact on a child’s future development in various aspects based on previous studies. Further, there are potential risks of exposing children to physical, sexual and emotional abuse by caretakers in the facility .
With allegations of child abuse, and exploitation which have been associated with welfare homes[11,12], the safety of the orphaned children is further threatened.
Alternatives such as family preservation, family unification, and family-based alternative care are comparatively better in the long run. Public expenditures of placing orphans in institutional care are substantial. Though the exact figures are difficult to disentangle, more money is spent on publicly-funded medical care for foster children and cash welfare. Besides this, meta-analysis discovered that children living in institutionalised care had lower IQ levels compared to children in foster families .
Call to action
Children need families, and families need support to care for children.
Local NGO OrphanCare Foundation assists affected parties to seek help from NGOs; despite being a ‘band-aid’ solution. The slow to start action taken by the associated ministry, KPWKM has caused OrphanCare Foundation CEO to urge the higher-ups to provide immediate measures and aids for orphaned children and to not rely on NGOs or private charities to provide for these children. She advised KPWKM to consider the Welfare Department as front liners for the children as well, apart from the Ministry of Health.
The government should directly invest in aiding orphans to find nurturing and lasting families. Income and parenting resources should be provided to families who take in orphaned children. It would be a sustainable alternative rather than institutional residential care.
Instead of focusing on giving out food baskets which everybody can do, a proper system or protocol to deal with Covid-19 orphans should be put in place. – Datin Paduka Che Asmah OrphanCare Foundation CEO
On the other hand, Datuk Seri Rina Harun assured that her ministry has taken initiative to look after COVID-19 orphans and to place them in local institutional residential care centres either as temporary or permanent placements . The mental well-being of the children is top of the list and the affected children would attend regular counselling sessions organised by the Welfare Department.
On top of that, the government has taken on a ‘cash and care’ approach to ensure newly-orphaned children are attended to. Datuk Rina has ensured that her ministry will be working alongside JKM to identify heirs willing to take care of the children under Section 17 of the Children’s Act 2001 .
Furthermore, the government had established an Immediate Relief and Child Assistance Fund to help caregivers by providing RM250 monthly for children under seven years old, while children aged seven and up will receive RM150 . As for financial assistance for the whole family, the government also increased the monthly rate of RM450 per month to RM1,000.
To prevent even more children from becoming orphaned, broadscale collaboration and rapid vaccine distribution are needed to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections and COVID-19 deaths. As of September 2021, 83.1% of Malaysia’s adult population is fully vaccinated.
Though Malaysia has seen great improvements amongst the vaccine-hesitant population, people in rural areas in states like Sabah with its large geography and poor infrastructure slows down the inoculation progress. Rapid and equitable vaccine access is key to reducing further COVID-19-associated orphanhood .
This article was written by Rachel Tan and edited by the Wiki Impact team.
Explore our sources:
1. Gorman, S. (2021, July 25). Over a million young orphans are the HIDDEN victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. France 24. Link
2. Global Reference Group on Children Affected by COVID-19: Joint Estimates and Action. (2021). Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021. A Joint Report of COVID-19 Associated Orphanhood and a Strategy for Action. Link
3. National Aids Spending Assessment. (2009). National Aids Spending Assessment (Nasa): Classification and Definitions. UNAIDS. Link
4. Palansamy, Y. (2021, September 22). Covid-19: After losing both parents to coronavirus, many such orphans in Malaysia may also lose their future. Malay Mail. Link
5. Noor, A. N. M. (2021). NGO calls for Govt Protocol on children who lose both parents to coronavirus. The Sun Daily. Link
6. Hillis, S. D., Unwin, H. J., Chen, Y., Cluver, L., Sherr, L., Goldman, P. S., Ratmann, O., Donnelly, C. A., Bhatt, S., Villaveces, A., Butchart, A., Bachman, G., Rawlings, L., Green, P., Nelson, C. A., & Flaxman, S. (2021). Global minimum estimates of children affected by covid-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers: A modelling study. The Lancet, 398(10298), 391–402. Link
7. G.C. Tremblay and A.C. Israel. (1998). Children’s Adjustment to Parental Death. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 5(4):424-38. Link
8. Idris, S. R. (2021, September 25). Death of ‘mama’ From Covid-19 makes three children ORPHANS: New Straits Times. NST Online. Retrieved September 30, 2021. Link
9. J. Greenberg and A.Greenberg. (2010, August 31). Families, not orphanages. Families, Not Orphanages | Better Care Network. Retrieved September 30, 2021. Link
10. M. H. van IJzendoorn, M. J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, R. Duschinsky, N. Fox, P.S. Goldman, M.R. Gunnar, et al., (2020). Institutionalisation and Deinstitutionalisation of children: A systematic and integrative review of evidence regarding effects on development. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(8), 703–720. Link
11. F. Zolkepli (2020, May 14). Eight arrested over child abuse allegations at Selayang welfare home. The Star. Retrieved September 30, 2021. Link
12. J. Thomas. (2020). Welfare home under scrutiny after shocking claims of … Retrieved September 30, 2021. Link
13. Zill, N. (2016). Adoption from Foster Care: Aiding children while saving public money. Brookings. from Link
14. M. van IJzendoorn, M. Luijk, & F. Juffer. (2008). IQ of children growing up in children’s homes: A meta-analysis on IQ delays in orphanages. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 54(3), 341–366. Link
15. H.Hassan, H. (2021, September 20). 154 children became orphans after losing both parents to covid-19, says minister. TRP. Link
16. Malay Mail. (2021). Rina Harun says ministry focuses on helping Covid-19 orphans regain emotional stability. Malay Mail. Link