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‘Lost generation’ threat of Ebola

Sierra Leone
Liberian schoolroom

Children's education is being disrupted by the Ebola outbreak. Ken Harper under a Creative Commons Licence

‘My two siblings and I lived with our parents before they both came down with the virus… one by one they died.’ These words, spoken by 13-year-old Liberian Ndebeh Kporloi, have become a familiar story in countries hit by Ebola. Across the worst-affected regions of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, at least 9,191 people have now been infected and 4,546 have died, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While Ebola has dramatically changed everyone’s lives in these regions, children are experiencing a degree of suffering for which childhood cannot prepare.

One of the biggest concerns for children is the escalating number of orphans. In September Unicef estimated at least 3,700 children had lost one or both parents to Ebola. That number is growing, as Unicef’s Liberia spokesperson Laurent Duvillier explains: ‘WHO data shows the most Ebola-affected age group is aged 25 to 36 – that means most of them are parents. We have anecdotal evidence that the number is growing, following the exponential growth of the number of cases.’ The WHO has warned that by December there could be as many as 10,000 new infections each week.

Hugs denied

Supporting orphans in a humanitarian crisis situation is nothing new for Unicef. But the fact the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids and physical contact means NGOs supporting children have to take unprecedented measures. Any child of a parent who has died of Ebola may have contracted the disease themselves. But its incubation period of up to 21 days means no-one can be sure until the child presents symptoms. Up to that moment, the child must be isolated to prevent further transmission. But children of any age need adult support, particularly after suffering the loss of parents.

‘You want to give the children a hug, especially when you know they’ve lost one or both their parents. And you just can’t do that. We cannot touch them’

‘We put Ebola orphans into an interim care centre,’ says Duvillier. ‘We have one centre in Liberia run by the local authorities and supported by Unicef. We visited it and it’s extremely frustrating for us. Usually when you’re entering a place with kids they come and greet you and you want to give the children a hug, especially when they’re in those difficult moments where you know they’ve lost one or both their parents. And you just can’t do that. We cannot touch them.’

Ndebeh’s story is typical. ‘We went through a harsh and painful 21-day period of quarantine,’ he says. ‘We almost starved to death, but we are now certified free from Ebola.’ Like many children, Ndebeh suffered stigma as a result having infected family members. He is now being cared for by an aunt who receives financial support from charity Street Child. Founder Tom Dannatt says his team of social workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone are spending much of their time explaining to relatives of new orphans that it is safe to care for them. ‘You get some cases where a whole family has been wiped out, one child is alive, and people say the child is a witch,’ adds Dannatt.

Dannatt says poverty is another barrier to people agreeing to care for orphans. ‘These are families struggling to feed and send their own children to school, so the idea of taking on an extra one is really tricky,’ he says. ‘We have to provide food, clothes and bedding. These are essential because whatever belongings the children had would have been burnt in their home’s disinfection process.’

Some orphans are not as lucky as Ndebeh. Both Unicef and Street Child can site cases where orphans have been left to starve to death because their neighbours were too afraid to help them.

Stark changes

Children who have not lost parents are also experiencing stark changes in their lives, as Ebola-infected countries have closed schools indefinitely. Street Child runs schools in 127 communities across Sierra Leone and was due to open its first schools in Liberia in the autumn. But now Dannatt has shifted the organization’s resources towards keeping children alive.

Once Ebola has passed, the economic havoc it has wreaked may mean school is unaffordable for families in the future – the breadwinners may be dead

He is concerned the loss of school will not only set pupils back educationally, but break the practice of going to school forever. ‘In this time out of school they will have got used to working, either because they have to work or because it’s something to do. Will they then go back?’ he asks. Dannatt says these concerns are particularly pertinent to children with a history of falling in and out of school and those in rural areas where one may have only recently opened.

UK Sierra Leone Diaspora Ebola Task Force member Khadijatu Mansaray agrees Ebola could sound the death toll for many children’s school days. Her organization is preparing lessons for children in Sierra Leone to be broadcast over national radio. This would add to radio shows already on the air through a collaboration between the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and Unicef. She hopes the approach will hold young people’s interest in education.

Mansaray suggests teenage girls are particularly vulnerable. ‘It’s difficult for teenagers in general and when women in Sierra Leone get to childbearing age you want them to get their education out of the way,’ she says. She also points out that once Ebola has passed, the economic havoc it has wreaked may mean school is unaffordable for families in the future. ‘The breadwinners may be dead,’ she warns.

Economic activity is at a standstill in affected countries. Since summer, employers have ordered staff to stay home to avoid physical contact, or laid off workers as business ground to a halt. Governments have imposed quarantines on communities experiencing high numbers of Ebola cases. By restricting people’s movements, they cut off traders from their markets and plunged many families into poverty. As a result, food prices have risen by 30 per cent in some parts of Liberia. And with land borders closed around affected countries, people are experiencing food shortages and living off hand-outs provided by the UN World Food Programme.

Psychological impact

The health risks associated with poor nutrition have not gone unnoticed by other organizations. Charity Mary’s Meals is currently providing food for 69,000 children in Liberia. The organization’s head of programmes, Joseph Goelo, says checkpoints have impacted on parent’s ability to feed their children. ‘A lot of parents have decided not to move from one place to another and this has made their lives very difficult,’ he says.

Normally, Mary’s Meals provides impoverished children with a meal a day at school, as a way of enticing them into education. With schools closed, the charity is now distributing emergency take-home rations to parents. ‘You can see the anxiety in people when they come to receive food,’ says Goelo. ‘When the parents receive a ration they are very excited – it’s something overwhelming for them.’

He adds that the situation is having a negative psychological impact on the children. ‘Children are not really feeling happy at home. They are asking when school will open or when they can eat food again,’ he says.

Food insecurity is also being affected by a reduction in farming. In October, the UN suggested up to 40 per cent of farms in Sierra Leone had been abandoned. Red Cross programme manager for West Africa Christine Tokar explains: ‘When the Ebola outbreak was reaching its height in July, that was planting season for some staple foods like rice. In some communities, where there was high incidence of Ebola, they haven’t been able to plant their seeds. And perhaps the yield is down of what they planted because they planted it late.’ When Ebola is finally expelled from West Africa, it could take years for children to recover from its impact. Dannatt warns that like the decade-long wars that destroyed children’s lives in Sierra Leone and Liberia from the 1990s, the virus could provoke a second lost generation of young people. ‘I’m quite apocalyptic about what I think is going to happen,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we’ve really grasped the scale of the humanitarian tragedy that’s coming on top of Ebola.’


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