Covid-19 pandemic could worsen orphan crisis in lake region

Remains of the late PCEA Secretary-general Rev Peter Kania Kariuki during his burial at Torch in Kikuyu. Rev Kania succumbed to coronavirus. [Hudson Wainaina, Standard]

Last June, my uncle, a celebrated trade unionist and teacher died of Covid-19.
He was a mentor and a philanthropist who kept his door open for the most vulnerable members of our community. For most problems, he was armed with a solution.

Among those he supported were five orphans. He would put them up in different secondary schools. My aunt, who also died of Covid-19 complications, supported six orphans.

Older adults like my aunt and uncle constitute a big part of the support system for this vulnerable population in Nyanza, but a good number of them are succumbing to Covid-19 due to their vulnerability. They are leaving behind orphans bereft of their support system, who are now more vulnerable than before. It is a situation that necessitates the government to mobilise resources and increase support for orphans as part of the Covid-19 response.

Before the pandemic, there were about 3.6 million orphans and vulnerable children aged 0-17 years in Kenya. If what researchers have observed is anything to go by, this number is likely to increase.

According to the World Bank, for every two people who die of Covid-19, one child is orphaned. A study by Lancet also estimates that between March 2020 and April 2021, about 1.1 million children globally experienced the death of a primary caregiver.

The situation is even more worrying in Nyanza, where an estimated 20 per cent of children are already orphans (twice the national average). The region has already suffered the devastation of the HIV/Aids pandemic, which not only turned homes into graveyards but orphaned many children.

Data shows that due to HIV/Aids in Nyanza, the number of orphans in the region rose to about 600,000 in 2009.
Now, even those previously orphaned by the HIV/Aids pandemic are at risk of losing their caregivers.

Despite this looming orphan crisis, there is little infrastructure to support orphans in Kenya. According to the 2012 Kenya Aids Indicator Survey nearly 80 per cent of orphans and vulnerable children under the age of 18 receive little or no external support, from food, clothes, educational necessities, and psychosocial counselling.

While a cash transfer programme exists, the Sh2,000 given each month is too little. Most times, grandparents and other elderly members of the extended family have had to find other means to support orphans. My aunt needed more than one source of income to support those under her care.

She was a farmer and supplemented the money she made through farming with her late husband’s pension, and the support she received from working family members. Still, this was barely enough to meet all her household needs.

If orphans who were already vulnerable and are now losing their support system stand a chance at thriving, the government needs to put better infrastructure in place.

Young people in the country are already facing serious economic challenges. The fishing sector – a main source of income for many families in the Nyanza region – is reporting low yields.

The boda boda (motorbike taxis) industry, a main income earner for child-headed households in the region, has proven a dangerous occupation for the male child due to frequent accidents. Without a system of support, the orphaned girl child is vulnerable to early marriage and sexual violence.

Unfortunately, as with the governments’ response to the HIV/Aids pandemic, the response to Covid-19 falls short. Facilities remain under-equipped and understaffed.

Vaccination rate in the country remains low. So far, only five million people have been fully vaccinated, which is less than 10 per cent of the country’s population. There is little focus on secondary impacts such as the looming orphan crisis.

As a first step, the government needs to urgently expand its pandemic response mechanism to include a Covid-19 resource fund for orphans in the Nyanza region.

Secondly, the amount distributed through the existing cash transfer programme should also be increased at least to cover basic needs.

Ms Orwa, a widow champion, and 2021 Aspen New Voices Fellow is the Founder and Director of the Rona Foundation, a widow human rights organisation in Kenya that works to advance and protect widows' rights, as well as provide support to orphans and vulnerable children.