Caribbean students express fear of dying, say COVID-19 has wrecked their lives

Senior staff reporter

Friday, November 27, 2020

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Caribbean children yesterday gave the world a window into their experience with the novel coronavirus pandemic, branding it an “unwelcome stranger” which has severely curtailed their activities and rights, causing them to fear their deaths and that of loved ones as millions around the world succumb to the virus.

The children, who are students of primary and secondary schools across the Caribbean, were taking part in day two of the 15th annual Caribbean Child Research Conference dubbed 'Pandemics and Children's Rights — (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)'.

For Jamaica's Mariesha Gayle, who represented the eight to 11-year-old group, 2020 was to her “the year the world stood still”.

The primary school student who has underlying issues — ventricular septal defect, a birth defect of the heart, as well as asthma — said she was gripped by fear when she learnt of how deadly the virus could be to people like herself, and others in general.

“The fear of dying, the fear of relatives dying. When I first heard of the coronavirus I was scared. I have an underlying issue. It became my focus,” the child shared.

She said, in March, when schools in Jamaica were ordered closed after the virus hit the island's shores, she was pleased, but that relief was short-lived.

“After a few days I realised it wasn't as fun as I had hoped... it was as if I was a prisoner in my own home,” she said, noting “children have the right to play, but now they are confined to their sofas and beds hiding from fear of what might happen [if they go] outside.”

The children chafing at the ravages of the pandemic on the education system, which has disenfranchised billions of their peers, blamed it for “wrecking their lives” taking away their rights to play and their rights to be with their parents in instances where parents reside in other countries. They also said that when their guardians fall ill and are quarantined they are left at the mercy of other adults and potential abuse.

Turks and Caicos primary school student Shandrique Ebanks also lamented the impact of the stay-at-home restrictions and online learning. She expressed fears about the repercussions for a 12-year-old sibling recently diagnosed with diabetes.

“COVID-19 has put a really big hole in our social life. We miss playing together on the monkey bars at school. This new lifestyle has taken away our rights to play. In my research I have learnt that playing and socialising helps us as children to be physically fit, manage our emotions better, and helps us to do our schoolwork. For example, a few weeks ago my stepbrother was diagnosed with diabetes, he is only 12 years old. I think his health would have been better if he was at school getting regular exercise than stuck at home eating all the junk food out of boredom,” she said.

“COVID-19 has changed how we learn; online learning is new, but we just had to dive into it... We are kids, not adults, it is new to us and can be challenging, and if it is challenging for those of us with devices, what about those who do not have? Once again, another of our rights have been removed. We have a right to education, but some children do not have devices so they have not been able to attend school online,” she stated.

Other children, while noting that being able to spend more time at home with family members was probably the only positive, fretted about the implications for their countries' economies, pointing out that, with the loss of tourism dollars, “governments are broke”.

The children, who expressed frustration at having to “take turns” to attend school in those countries where face-to-face classes have resumed, detailed the hardships of trying to talk while wearing masks and of not being able to be closer to their friends.

“Some weeks we only go to school for two days. That is very bad. This means we might not be ready for exams. Some of our friends go to class on different days from us. Some of us have not seen our closest friends since March — that is almost eight months. Our right to freedom of association has been violated,” St Lucia's Jashon Taylor lamented.

Trinidadian student Azariah Joseph pointed to the fallout caused to families.

“A lot of families are not the same any more,” she stated, noting that, with parents busy trying to make ends meet, children are often rebuffed when clamouring for more of their time.

“Therefore, questions from children are often seen as offensive... we are stressed too; it is not easy for a child to live like this,” she stated.

Joseph, in sharing a scenario in which children have to be supervised by grandparents in the absence of their parents, said freedoms such as play are severely curtailed.

“Even our dog gets into trouble when he barks too loud; it makes me feel as if I am in prison,” she said.

In the words of her peer Vrishni Maharaj, also from Trinidad and Tobago, “COVID-19 is like a stranger who invites themself over and refuses to leave.”

On Wednesday, a University of the West Indies professor, speaking during the conference, called for an urgent analysis of the effects of the pandemic on the quality of education children are now receiving.

According to Aldrie Henry-Lee, professor of social policy and director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, already a number of rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child have been violated.

“Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child advocates that state parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child's personality, talents, and mental and physical ability,” she said.

“However, the pandemic has disrupted the educational processes worldwide. Urgent analysis is needed to examine the effects of this disruption and the quality of education our children currently access,” said Professor Henry-Lee, who was one of five panellists at the virtual conference.

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