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‘Hidden pandemic’: Peruvian children in crisis as carers die | Global development

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When Covid-19 began shutting down Nilda López’s vital organs, doctors decided that the best chance of saving her and her unborn baby was to put her into a coma.

Six months pregnant, López feared she would not wake up, or that if she did, her baby would not be there.

Her partner had already died of the virus, and doctors predicted that López would too.

But whether due to the expertise of the intensive-care unit’s medical team, López’s will to cling to life for her children – or, as she sees it, divine intervention – doctors were able to save the mother and the baby, María Belén, who was three months premature, with an emergency caesarean.

“It really is a miracle of God,” says López, who lives in a settlement of ramshackle wooden and concrete-block houses in the dusty mountains skirting the northern edge of Lima. “Maybe he didn’t want me to die for my kids, so I could continue fighting for them. They are the ones that really need me.”

The scars remain for López. She has not yet processed the loss of her partner and has to provide for her three children – including 12-year-old twins from a previous marriage – while Covid-19 has impaired her ability to walk.

María Belén, now six months old, is one of an estimated 99,000 children in Peru and 1.6 million globally who have lost a caregiver to Covid-19, according to a study published in the Lancet in July.

Covid-19 orphanhood is a “hidden pandemic”, say researchers. Obscured by the more visible tumult of the pandemic, it is damaging the mental and physical health and economic future of the next generation.

Peru faces a particularly severe crisis. High levels of informal labour, intergenerational housing and poverty have made it fertile ground for the coronavirus. It has recorded 197,000 Covid-19 deaths – the highest number in the world per capita.

Newborn babies whose mothers are infected with coronavirus, at the National Perinatal and Maternal Institute.
Newborn babies, whose mothers are infected with coronavirus, at the National Perinatal and Maternal Institute. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

By the end of April this year, almost 93,000 Peruvian children – more than one in 100 – had lost a parent, according to the Lancet study.

Experts believe the impact of the pandemic on children has been overlooked as they are usually less badly affected than adults by the illness itself, even though more than 1,000 Peruvian children have died from Covid-19.

Yuri Cutipé, executive director of mental health at Peru’s ministry of health, says: “If we add the loss of a parent or caregiver to the mental health impact of the pandemic in the context of weakening family and community networks and economic shortcomings, mental health throughout the life of this population is likely to be marked by various breakdowns and some complex difficulties.”

Lengthy lockdowns have caused a sharp increase in domestic violence as well as anxiety and depression in children. A third of children in Lima “show a high burden of mental health risk”, according to a study by Peru’s health ministry and Unicef.

Roxana Pingo, coordinator of Save the Children Peru’s (SCP) Covid response programme, says: “Even before you take into account that more than 1,000 children have died from Covid-19 in Peru, they have been extremely affected by depression and anxiety.”

Latin America and the Caribbean had the largest number of children missing school in the world, according to Unicef’s estimates in March. The educational hiatus is accentuating existing chasms in inequality and setting back life prospects for a generation, the UN agency says.

Children raise their phones to try to get a mobile signal during virtual classes in the Puente Piedra shantytown outside Lima.
Children try to get a mobile signal during virtual classes in the Puente Piedra shantytown outside Lima. Latin America and the Caribbean have the world’s highest number of children missing lessons. Photograph: Martín Mejía/AP

The pandemic has plunged families who have lost a breadwinner into deeper poverty. López’s partner, a taxi driver, brought in the main wage and she cannot continue her job cleaning at a local college due to her difficulties walking. “We don’t know what to do,” she says. “I don’t see any economic opportunities.”

So many Peruvian families have lost a caregiver that the government approved an “orphan pension” in March. It pays caregivers of children who have lost one or both parents 200 Peruvian soles (£35) a month until the child is 18 years old. “It’s a lifeline,” says López.

But the delivery of pension payments has been slow. For now, López is relying solely on the goodwill of strangers and donations from SCP for food, milk and nappies.

It could take up to six months for a child who has lost a parent to start receiving payments and longer for those who have lost both parents, says Pingo. There are also insufficient funds to cover the programme, so children under five are prioritised.

The sluggish, fragmented response is typical of Peru, says Nelly Claux, SCP’s director of programme impact. The country became a model for child rights in Latin America during the 1990s, thanks to its progressive legislation. But the government often struggles to bring ideas conceived in Lima into reality in the sprawling slums on its periphery or the towns and villages dotted across the Andes.

“We have no lack of legal framework. It’s world-leading,” Claux says. “What we don’t have is cooperation, officials who know what they are doing, and funds.”

An official at a Child Defence Centre (Defensoría Municipal del Niño y el Adolescente or Demuna) told López that many parents and caregivers did not know that they were entitled to the pension. Demuna, a state-funded office that supports children’s rights at a local level, has been distributing flyers at its centres, posting notices on Facebook and going from door to door to raise awareness.

By the end of July, more than 11,000 families were receiving the payment, according to Peru’s ministry for women.

The government estimates that 35,000 children are eligible, which is below the Lancet study’s findings of 99,000. Terre des Hommes, a child development agency, puts that number at 70,000.

People queue at a soup kitchen in Comas, on Lima’s outskirts.
People queue at a soup kitchen in Comas, near Lima. So many families have lost caregivers that Peru has introduced an ‘orphan pension’. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty

Children who lose a caregiver are more likely to be institutionalised in an orphanage or care home, and experience broader short- and long-term adverse effects on their health, safety and wellbeing, say experts.

Girls become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and boys to illegal mine work. “The Peruvian response must be comprehensive, protecting against damage to mental health, education, exploitation and crime,” says Pingo.

“We know that they are out there and that the quicker we get to them, the more we can help. But we just don’t know where they are. We’ve got to find them.”

Early intervention minimises the impact. But first, they have to find the children. All the while, the list keeps growing. In the week to 10 August, more than 500 Covid deaths were recorded, meaning hundreds more children have likely lost a parent or caregiver.

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Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing’s on the wall… | Global development

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In the new dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned in 2019 to the country of her birth for the first time in years. Her mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It proved unexpectedly straightforward.

“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: ‘Anything you want’.

“Nobody harassed us. Nobody told us what to do. Nobody asked us for the script. I call this time in the history of Sudan ‘the honeymoon’,” says Mirghani.

Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York.
The Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty

More than two and a half years after the toppling of the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil into which Sudan has again been plunged means she feels unable to return safely.

On 31 October, as her film, Al-Sit, won the latest of many awards, Mirghani had to give an acceptance speech that was anything but celebratory.

Six days before, the military had seized power in a coup, detaining the civilian prime minister and bringing the country’s fragile transition to democracy to an abrupt halt.

In a video address from Qatar to the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland, Mirghani said “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the civilian-military partnership government. “Now,” she added, “we’re in very serious danger of going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression.”

Since the coup, a lot has happened: huge pro-democracy protests thronged through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 demonstrators killed.

After almost a month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was released as part of a deal struck with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

A still from a film, with a young girl talking to her grandmother as they sit next to a lamp at night
A still from Mirghani’s film, Al-Sit, about a young girl’s arranged marriage in Sudan. Photograph: Courtesy FilmFreeway

But the protesters, who want the military out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less so as security forces fire teargas into the crowds that continue to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now hanging in the balance, Sudanese artists feel they have to speak out.

“We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power,” writes Aamira*, a painter, in an email from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the achievements of the last few years”.

It may not have been uppermost in his mind, but one of those achievements was the flowering of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the daytime, which would have been just impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.”

Street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum.
The street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of the former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum. Photograph: Assil Diab

Feeling compelled to return amid the revolutionary fervour, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made her name painting the faces of the revolution’s “martyrs” on the outside of their families’ homes, with a getaway car close by in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.

For Mirghani, the “absolute elation” of the revolution yielded creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a Sudanese village girl whose parents want her to marry the sharp-suited son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you had wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s amazing.

“My film is about women’s rights. It’s social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago,” says Mirghani.

The “honeymoon” was not without its challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and a reluctance to champion the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was patchy: in 2020, the renowned film-maker Hajooj Kuka and several others were detained during a theatre workshop.

Asim*, a documentary film-maker in Khartoum, says that, although in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not as relaxed. “It’s partially freedom and partially censorship,” he says. “It is a battle about 10% won.”

Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist based in Qatar, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artist Fund (SAF), to provide budding creatives with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public art and design library. He says: “I thought: this is it. All doors were open and this is what we were going to do.

a cartoon of a protester draped in Sudan's flag painting a red line through a street sign showing a U-turn
The political cartoonist Khalid Albaih makes his point about the recent coup attempt. Photograph: Khalid Albaih

“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years I’m in Sudan walking around, not scared of any police, or secret police, or anything. I went to every business owner in Sudan and everyone that can donate money to these causes. And I got nothing but rejection – for a library and for an artists’ fund.”

Finally, Albaih secured $7,000 (£5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organisation, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $500 in October – just before the coup. “It was incredible because the internet cut out [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send the money to him,” says Albaih.

The cartoonist knows there will not be any more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things will go. It’s going to be really hard for artists and these kinds of initiatives to move forward.

Women walk past a hoarding with graffiti of silhouetted protesters
Women walk past graffiti reading in Arabic: ‘Freedom, peace, justice and civilian’ in the Burri district of Khartoum in 2019. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

The coup, says Diab, left the creative community feeling “disappointed and just broken down … because we finally thought we were free and then this happened.” She intends to apply for political asylum in the US, where she is studying, feeling she “can be of better use to Sudan” from overseas.

Those in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a protest in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “teargassed the entire afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He is realistic about future challenges but knows that people have made up their minds.

“I feel like there is a grip on power and it will not end today; it will not end tomorrow. Whether those power-hungry authoritarians will roll with democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and film-makers to operate or not, that is something that is still [up in] the air, because you never know with the ever-changing dynamic of power in this country,” he says.

The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe that is possible and I believe there is hope. The people will not stop asking for what they really want. [Will] that future come tomorrow? The day after? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree it has to happen.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identity

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EU agrees to sanction Russian mercenaries

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EU diplomats have provisionally agreed to blacklist three Russian nationals and one entity, the ‘Wagner Group’ mercenary outfit, on grounds of human rights abuses in Africa and the Middle East, diplomatic sources said. The decision will be formalised by foreign ministers next Monday. The move comes amid Wagner’s increasing presence in Mali, threatening French interests in the region. Europe earlier sanctioned a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said to fund Wagner.

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I feel despair at Sudan’s coup. But my children’s mini protest gives me hope | Khalid Albaih

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“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941, just before the US entered the second world war. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.”

Growing up, I was always interested in politics, politics was the reason I had to leave Sudan at the age of 11. At school, we weren’t allowed to study or discuss it, and it was the same at home.For years, I lay in bed and listened to my father and his friends as they argued about politics and sang traditional songs during their weekend whisky rituals. They watched a new Arabic news channel, Al Jazeera, which aired from Qatar. All the journalism my father consumed about Sudan was from the London-based weekly opposition newspaper, Al Khartoum. The only time he turned on our dial-up internet was to visit Sudanese Online.

At the time, I never understood how Sudanese activists and political figures, like my diplomat father, who cared deeply about the country and had fought for their principles for so long, suddenly submissively stepped back. Or worse, why they sheltered their children from the issues. I always wondered, “So who are you fighting for then?”

In my adult life, opposing former president Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarianism and corruption became a personal battle for me, more so with every year I spent outside Sudan. It took shape slowly, until a few years before the Arab spring it peaked with the publication of my political cartoons on social media. I blogged, tweeted and posted, knowing that, although working in exile gave me a level of freedom unavailable to dissidents at home, I also risked everything through being unflinching in my criticism.

This last decade since the Arab spring has been a political rollercoaster. It was an honour to see my work shared by protesters all over the world – and be recognised by the BBC and the New York Times. I’ve published two books and had exhibitions around the world, been detained in two different countries, and wanted in my own. Like many fellow activists, I’ve experienced the effects of despair and burnout.

Deep into the long winter that has followed the quashed Arab spring, and just as I was ready to give in to my despair, a second wave ofrebellion has hit Sudan. Bashir’s bloody 30-year rule ended, finally, in a revolution led by women, artists and unions. This uprising on the streets of Sudan was matched with huge support from members of the diaspora, exiled by Bashir’s regime. Returning in the wake of the uprising was an extraordinary experience. For the first time in a decade, I entered Sudan without expecting arrest. I tried to explain to my children how the people had won and collectively overcome this evil man who ruled Sudan; that although he dressed like a policeman, he was a criminal.

In the past rocky two years , Sudan has seen an influx of families who left three decades ago – people trying to regain what was lost. But it seems the counter-revolutionaries remain strong – determined to prevent democracy. Even with international support limited to Egypt, Saudi and the UAE, the October coup against the transitional government has been a huge defeat for those working towards a free Sudan.

At 41, I hoped my children could experience Sudan as home. But it’s hard to keep hoping it will be safe in Sudan to continue my activism and work as a political cartoonist anytime soon.

Now, I understand how my father and his friends felt. In a country that has had six coups since independence in 1956, I can understand the instinct to protect children from instability, uncertainty and tragedy. I spend most nights on WhatsApp sending frustrated voice messages about the situation. All my friends and I talk about is news about Sudan. I find myself trying to shield my children from the (mostly bad) news.

How do I explain that our army is killing young men and women? How do I explain that bad men in police uniforms are back again? That evil has returned so fast?

In the end I did not need to. My eldest daughter used her screen time to read posts and watch videos about Sudan. Early one Friday morning I awoke to a mini anti-coup protest with her and her younger siblings waving flags and shouting slogans in our living room.

With guidance and citizen journalism, these younger generations are far more action-oriented than we used to be. What we achieved in a decade will take them less time. As authoritarianism evolves, humans discover new ways to gain their freedoms. If my young children can stage a protest in their living room, despite my best efforts to shelter them from the news, imagine what’s going on inside Sudan right now.

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