In a little house on the outskirts of Lima, Gabriela Zarate lives with her husband and eight children. Four are yours. And the other four, two girls aged 7 and 15 and two boys aged 9 and 12, are the children of his younger sister Katherine.
It’s hard to get them all. The two boys sleep in pairs in a bunk bed, and the girls share a room at the back of the house. “It has always been a struggle to put food on the table for my family,” says Gabriela. “And with four more children it is even more difficult.”
In June 2020, when Peru was already struggling to contain Covid-19, Katherine became infected. Hospitals were overcrowded, supplies had run out, and family members saw loved ones die, unable to help.
When the doctors rejected Katherine, Gabriela had no choice but to drive her home. Katherine was lying on a mattress. He was struggling to breathe, but his family did not have enough money to give him oxygen. They all saw Katherine grow weaker and weaker.
A week later, he died.
One of the last things Katherine did was ask Gabriela to take care of her children. His father suffers from health problems and addiction and is not always present. Katherine didn’t want them to end up in a children’s home, so Gabriela agreed to take care of them.
It has not been easy. When the government imposed a strict stay-at-home order during the worst waves of the pandemic, they were left wondering what they would do.
“I used to drive a taxi and sell candy on the streets,” says Gabriela. “But then they told us to stay home and I got worried. How were we going to feed them all?”
To earn some money, her partner started delivering food to people during curfew, which was illegal. It was then that he also contracted covid-19 and was no longer able to work. “We were all afraid that he would die, but in the end he recovered,” he says.
In the worst moments, when neither of us could go out to work, Gabriela hung a white flag outside her home to indicate that she needed help. Neighbors began bringing him sacks of potatoes and other food.
Peru has been hit by Covid-19, with more than 202,500 deaths in a population of less than 33 million. One of the most tragic effects of the pandemic here has been the number of children who have been left without a mother, father or some other caregiver.
In Peru there are at least 93,000 of them, according to the medical journal “The Lancet”. And even though one of their parents is still alive, they are known as “covid orphans.”
Many face a daily struggle to survive. Financially and emotionally.
Katherine’s children, like many others, have a hard time talking about their mother. Her 15-year-old daughter saw her die and Gabriela says she is traumatized. She doesn’t talk about what happened to anyone.
The children remember her with nostalgia. “I miss my mother,” says Katherine’s nine-year-old son. “He used to take us out to the streets to play with us.”
Helping children like them is a topic that professionals like Andrea Ramos are trying to address. She is a social worker for the city council of two poor areas of Lima. Her desk is littered with paperwork and she relies on locals to contact her via WhatsApp to indicate who needs help.
Poverty, he says, is getting worse because to rising unemployment in the pandemic. This, in turn, is generating more frustration and violence in the home.
“We have many children with mental health problems who are afraid to go out because they have been locked up during the worst waves of the pandemic,” he says.
There are workshops to help families deal with when children are home all day with online classes; and how to resolve fights and keep tempers in check
For some families, life is slowly improving. Gabriela now receives a government-approved covid pension for each of her nieces and nephews. It only represents about $ 50 a month per child, but it does mean that you can afford to buy extra food for them and print pages for their homework.
The kids are watching online classes two days a week. It is difficult to find space for everyone. Despite missing their mother, they say they like living with their aunt. It is fun to play soccer in the street with your cousins, although sometimes they end up arguing.
Although professionals like Andrea are concerned about the long-term effects the pandemic will have on “covid orphans,” Gabriela’s nieces and nephews are ambitious about their future. The oldest wants to be a lawyer, the two police boys and the little girl a doctor.