Healing fear and trauma with love
Children orphaned due to COVID-19 try to overcome their fear and trauma with the help of their caregivers and social workers.
It’s late afternoon in the village, and night is falling, but there is a bustle in the house — as often happens after a death. The house belongs to Sari, 32, and her husband Bondan. At the back, they are building a new kitchen as well as a bedroom for Sari’s 12-year-old brother, Aga, whose mother and stepfather recently died from COVID-19.
Ever since Aga came to live in the house, he has been sharing a room and a bed with his sister, brother-in-law and their 6-year-old daughter Ruri, whom Aga dotes on. “I’m happy the way things are,” he says. “But I’m also looking forward to my new room.”
By his sister’s account, Aga is a sweet and caring boy who is also a little fragile, especially after the death of his mother, with whom he was close. Aga’s biological father died when he was five.
“My brother has had many hardships in his life,” Sari says. “He was born premature, weighed only 1.1 kg — it was touch and go. Growing up, he’s always been sensitive — especially to loud noise. He’s also emotionally vulnerable.”
This afternoon, however, Aga is poised and self-assured. Be it about mundane things — his pet cats out front, playing football with his friends, watching ghost stories on YouTube — or traumatic events such as his mother’s final days, he consistently speaks in a structured and thoughtful manner.
“I heard my mother fall in the bathroom. I was the one who called the village midwife,” he says. “But when they took her to the hospital, I didn’t know she was already gone — I thought she only fainted.”
For all his articulateness, Aga does not draw attention to his own suffering. It is Sari who explains that right after learning of his mother’s death, Aga had to go into mandatory self-isolation, all by himself, for 10 days. Two days later, he was told that his stepfather had died. “Imagine what that does to a child,” Sari says.
Not long ago, after Aga ran a high fever for a couple of days, Sari found out that he was in fact depressed because he was being bullied at school. “But he didn’t tell me — I had to coax it out of him,” she says. Since then, fearing more repercussions from pent-up emotions, Sari resigned from her job to spend more time with her brother.
“I’m glad that Aga is seeing more of Pak Januri now,” she says, referring to the social worker seconded by PKSAI — an integrated child social welfare programme from the government supported by UNICEF — to assist and monitor the well-being of children orphaned due to COVID-19. “I also hope there will be more counselling in the near future for Aga.”
According to Iksan Tri Wibowo, another social worker in the regency, it is not just COVID-19 that can kill – but the stigma as well. One of the children he visits regularly is 12-year-old Ayra, who is devastated by the death of her father from COVID-19.
The first three months were especially hard, and she cooped herself up in her room all day. “I loved my father. We used to laugh a lot and do everything together,” she says. “But then he died, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him.”
Worse still, when Ayra, her mother and her 2-year-old sister Safia came out of quarantine — after the three of them tested positive for COVID-19 — they were cast out by their neighbours for months. “Nobody would come near us, much less help us,” says Suwarsi, Ayra’s mother.
As the family’s sole breadwinner, Suwarsi has had to juggle making street snacks for a living and caring for the children alone. Even though her parents live nearby, they are old and cannot always look after Safia. “Business is slightly better now as more people are getting vaccinated,” she says. “But I feel bad having to ask Ayra to stay home during school hours to look after her sister.”
Ayra herself does not mind. “It’s only twice a month at most,” she says. “Besides, now that all my friends at school have been vaccinated, they come here more often to play.”
Increased vaccine drives in the district are not the only headway that give Ayra and her mother some measure of relief. Along with psychosocial support from UNICEF, their family has been receiving financial, educational, and basic needs assistance from PKSAI and other government programmes, including savings accounts for Ayra and Safia and extra support for their nutrition.
For Aga, Ayra and thousands of children in Central Java, East Java and Yogyakarta, the loss of a parent to COVID-19 was a stressful event that brought significant changes in their lives. Thanks to the valuable support from our partner, Accenture in Indonesia, UNICEF can provide psychosocial service to these children and strengthen the capacity of service providers with the government to ensure their health, safety and well-being.
How You Can Help
The above story is just one example of the type of work UNICEF, in conjunction with dedicated partners and social workers across Indonesia, doesto identify children orphaned due to COVID-19, facilitate access to mental health and psychosocial services, and help ensure children remain in family-based care.
But the challenge is far from over, and a long-term, coordinated effort will be needed to protect these children as well as children who are already in institutions. For this we need your support.
If you want to help support children in Indonesia who have lost one or both caregivers due to COVID-19, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider donating to UNICEF. We very much appreciate your contribution.
“Without this help, I could barely buy milk for the little one, let alone keep Ayra in school and see her pursue her dreams.”