With the largest Ebola epidemic in human history continuing to unfold before the world’s eyes, we have seen the toll it has taken on many aspects of several West African nations. Death is only part of this tragedy. With nearly 5,000 deaths and rising, the question demands an answer- what does this mean for children impacted by this epidemic? According to UNICEF, more than 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola since the outbreak’s start, with over half of these cases coming from Liberia alone. These numbers demand urgency and thoughtfulness in our response as we consider how we can best support these children.
Affected children are experiencing loss and separation as caregivers are admitted for treatment or die, and are experiencing home confinement and seeing health workers in protective suits in their communities. Child protection teams have reported that community cohesion is being undermined due to negative perceptions, and rumors and lack of clear information on the outbreak is further disrupting children’s psychosocial well-being.
These layers of stigma and fear attached to being a survivor or child of an Ebola victim are creating a new wave of orphans in places like Liberia, where the challenges of being a post-war society already make life difficult for vulnerable children. Stories like these are plaguing our West African brothers and sisters.
Some children have been forced to leave homes where relatives are infected, while others face stigma if parents or siblings contract the disease. Ebola Treatment Units and Community Care Centers address the treatment and infection control needs of symptomatic individuals, including children. New established Interim Care Centers provide a safe environment for children who have had contact with infected persons during the 21-day quarantined period while social workers work with the children’s extended families to support their reintegration or provide a foster care placement as an interim solution. This is often challenging work that requires addressing the fear and stigma associated with the disease in the children’s families and communities but also ensuring appropriate support is provided to them to enable them to do care for these children under very difficult circumstances.
In September, recognizing the impact this was having on children, the government of Liberia drafted Guidelines on the “provision of alternative care to children affected and infected with Ebola.” These Guidelines build on a strong framework for supporting family based care, including kinship care, which was adopted by the Liberian government earlier in 2014. The provisions state the priority of keeping children with their families, extended families, and communities. However, when this is not possible or families and communities are unwilling to care for these children, foster care should be prioritized over residential care. The Liberian government is strengthening the systems that allow social workers to track down extended family members. Andrew Brooks, UNICEF’s head of child protection for West and Central Africa says the focus now should be educating caregivers about how to care for a potential patient safely — and to seek medical care quickly if the child develops early signs of infection.
In addition, orphaned children and those who are separated and unaccompanied are in need of support services including: family tracing, reunification and reintegration, alternative care, psychosocial support, as well as support that responds to other needs arising from the situation such as livelihoods and education.
Even though there are no easy answers to care for children who have lost parents or caregivers, as we consider how to move forward, family reunification and family care must continue to be a priority in response to children orphaned or affected by Ebola. Education and addressing myths around the disease needs to be part of the solution in order for families and communities to welcome children that have been cleared of carrying the disease. Appropriate and strategic support for the families and foster parents who take on the care of children need to be in place, especially as we consider the Ebola epidemic will most likely grow worse before it gets better. It is also important to remember that children in emergency situations should not be moved out of their country (except temporarily for compelling health, medical or safety reasons). For more guidance on alternative care in emergencies, please refer to the Better Care Network website and in particular the Inter-agency ACE toolkit.
As a partner with Faith to Action, here are three ways you can response to the Ebola epidemic today:
1. Learn. Faith to Action urges you to educate yourself on the facts of Ebola in order to address preconceived myths that have surfaced. Learn and partner with us in responding to this epidemic. There are several partner organizations of Faith to Action that are part of the Ebola response. The Better Care Network has been involved in providing technical support on the Ebola response in West Africa by key partner agencies with a focus on children’s care issues. A number of inter-agency working groups are bringing together the various actors at country, regional, and global levels to also be part of dialogue around solutions to this epidemic. The Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) shared great work they have seen in response to the epidemic. World Vision is also responding through provision of medical supplies as well as guidance on child protection policies and practices. In an interview with First Fruit, SIM USA President Bruce Johnson said, “…We find in missions that we should be a voice for the voiceless and that it’s appropriate within a mission to do that when we’re called. We feel called to that right now…we have the opportunity to present hope where fear is what’s really fueling the story.”
2. Pray. Meditate on Scripture and understand how to specifically pray for the Ebola epidemic. Join Faith to Action and our partners in praying for children and families impacted by Ebola. Pray for caregivers that are stepping forward to care for children under extremely difficult circumstances and without the type of practical support that is essential for them to do this safely and effectively (protective gear, new bedding, cleaning products, food, etc.). Some helpful resources to utilize include those from World Vision and Tearfund.
3. Give. Help financially support the Ebola response of highlighted partners already mentioned or consider giving to another endorsing organization of our From Faith to Action publication that are working to help children and support caregivers. Join in the opportunity to uphold the value of children and strengthening families and communities in West Africa.