As the World Shrinks, Fear Grows in The Most Vulnerable Children

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unsettling for all children, regardless of their physical abilities.

Sam Mort
22 April 2020

10 years old and with a hearing-impairment, Tran tells UNICEF Viet Nam why all children need access to information on COVID-19

“Tell me what you know about Coronavirus, Tran.”

Through an elaborate process of translation: English to Vietnamese to sign language and back again, Tran responded, “People are dying.”

Surprised, because there have been no deaths from Coronavirus in Viet Nam to date, I asked again.

“And what else do you know?”

“People are sick and dying,” he signed to his teacher, Thai Anh.

Tran signs with his teacher, Do Hoang Thai Anh, from The Association of Deaf People of Ha Noi
UNICEF Viet Nam\Do My Linh
Tran signs with his teacher, Do Hoang Thai Anh, from The Association of Deaf People of Ha Noi

I turned to his mother, Ngai. “I thought he might tell me about handwashing,” I fished. “Has he learned about washing his hands for at least 20 seconds?”

Indeed, she confirmed that Tran is not only enthusiastic about washing his own hands but that he encourages his mum and other family members to wash theirs as well. Often.

“But,” she told me, “he’s very scared.” “Every morning, he asks me the same questions. Why are people sick? Why are people dying? I only know basic sign language so I can’t tell him everything he needs to know; I can’t reassure him. And he’s been out of school since the start of February so it’s difficult for him to talk to his friends and teachers and understand what’s going on. He’s lonely and bored.”  

Tran lives with his parents, two brothers and sister in a small, simple house in Long Bien, an urban district in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. The eldest of his siblings, he is a little shy when we first enter but his smile lights up the room soon after. Warmth and love radiate as he cuddles his baby brother, Linh, to give his Mum a moment’s peace.

Tran distracts 1 year old, Linh, with building bricks
UNICEF Viet Nam\Do My Linh
Tran distracts 1 year old, Linh, with building bricks

So, where and how does Tran get information about the pandemic, I asked his Mum.

“He watches the 7pm television news,” Ngai tells me. “But there is no sign language interpretation, and he can’t follow what’s being said very well; he only picks up fragments. The 10pm news, the repetition of the 7pm news, is signed but it’s on too late for him to stay up. And with only basic reading skills, he cannot understand newspapers.”

(Since our interview, a TV programme on COVID-19, with sign language interpretation, has started at 5.30pm)  

Delighted to have company and conversation, Tran chats with his teacher, Thai Anh.
UNICEF Viet Nam\Do My Linh
Delighted to have company and conversation, Tran chats with his teacher, Thai Anh.

I begin to get a better sense of just how isolated Tran is, and how small his world has become. And with strict social distancing measures in place across Viet Nam, he is not allowed out to play in the lane with his friends as he used to.

His only contact with the world outside his home is a couple of conversations with his teachers and friends through videocalls on Zalo; maths is his favourite subject. Other than that, he plays with his sister and brothers, and keeps busy by supporting his Mum.

“She has a lot to do,” he tells me. “So, I try to help her. But I want to go back to school.”

At that, our Vietnamese sign language interpreter, Nga, mother to a school friend of Tran’s, and a representative of the Society of Parents of Deaf Children (IDEO), asks if he’d like to FaceTime with her son, Ta Viet Vuong. Eyes bright at the thought of seeing his friend, our interview is instantly forgotten, and an animated conversation begins.

Tran and Tong Thi Nga’s son, Vuong, catch-up over a FaceTime chat
UNICEF Viet Nam\Do My Linh
Tran and Tong Thi Nga’s son, Vuong, catch-up over a FaceTime chat

How can UNICEF and the Ministry of Education help, I ask Ngai.

“By paying more attention to children with disabilities and by creating a more enabling environment for children with hearing-impairment. TV should have more sign language; social media should have more sign language.”

UNICEF Viet Nam has already enlisted Tran’s help to sign a video to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. I have never seen a more enthusiastic and persuasive sign language interpreter than Tran! But one video isn’t enough to combat Tran’s anxiety and feelings of isolation – and that of other children with hearing impairment like him. So, as a team, VCO has pledged to include sign language in more of our online assets so that we are truly for every child. Built into of the DNA of Viet Nam CO’s recent partnership with the national children’s TV station, VTV7, for example, was a requirement for sign language interpretation.

In doing so, piece by piece, we hope to make this global pandemic less scary for children, especially the most vulnerable.