A Hong Kong charity has estimated that up to 2,000 children under the age of 10 may have been separated from their parents over the past six weeks after being admitted to hospital with Covid-19, with its executive chair calling the policy “child abuse”.
The Hospital Authority could not confirm the figure with the Post on Monday, while lawmakers, medical personnel, legal experts and a mental health organisation urged the government not to separate infected children from their parents during isolation and treatment of the coronavirus.
They also called on authorities to provide clear guidance to affected families to help alleviate their stress and grief.
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Dr Lucy Lord, executive chair of mental health charity Mind Hong Kong said that separating a child from their parents for even a brief period could lead to post-traumatic stress and have a long-term impact on a youngster’s mental health.
“We have hardly seen any parent allowed to be admitted into hospital with their infected children,” she said. “This is unacceptable. This is child abuse on any level.”
Lord, who also works as an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Central Health Medical Practice Hong Kong, estimated there were about 1,000 to 2,000 infected children who had been separated from their parents over the past five to six weeks, with more than 90 per cent involving local families.
She added that about 30 per cent of expatriate patients at the medical practice had left Hong Kong with their families over fears of being separated from their children if the latter contracted Covid-19.
With the city’s public hospitals still overwhelmed by coronavirus patients and suffering a severe shortage of beds and isolation facilities, infected children have been quarantined without their parents.
The strict policy has triggered a public outcry and led many expats to reconsider their future in Hong Kong. Some parents have also become hesitant to report their children’s infection for fear of separation.
In one instance, a 32-year-old British mother told the Post last month that despite her pleas, she was separated from her 11-month-old daughter, who was admitted to Queen Mary Hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 and required to remain there for at least seven days.
Following the incident, both the British and Australian consulates in Hong Kong issued strongly worded statements to local authorities over concerns that parents would be separated from infants who tested positive for the coronavirus.
In addition to mental health concerns, Lord said that frontline medical workers had told her of instances where children left alone in hospital rooms had suffered accidents, including getting their limbs stuck in the cots.
The charity executive said no children under eight years old should be isolated from their parents, adding those under three years old were especially vulnerable because they were inclined to blame themselves for anything bad that happened.
She also called on parents to seek help for their children if they showed prolonged signs of distress after completing isolation, such as banging their heads or biting themselves.
Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights, said that each hospital had adopted different policies toward isolating children who tested positive for Covid-19.
Some facilities allowed parents to accompany their youngsters in isolation, while others were “putting the public health over the best interests of children,” she said.
Wong said that children should never be separated from their parents under any circumstances, unless their parents were unable or unsuitable to take care of them, such as in cases of domestic abuse.
“This is already the fifth wave. Why was it our children who were the first to be sacrificed each time?” she said, urging the government to provide clear policy and guidance for both affected families and frontline medical staff.
Legal experts also said they had received numerous calls from distressed parents whose children had contracted the coronavirus.
Barrister Jeremy Chan Siu-kee, who specialises in family law, said many of his clients had made inquiries about whether they should report their child’s infection to health authorities as they were worried about being separated from them.
Chan added there were also large numbers of underprivileged families concerned about being separated from their children who had no resources to seek legal help.
Lawmaker Ambrose Lam San-keung said he and several legal experts earlier this month had proposed guidelines to authorities on treating hospitalised children with Covid-19, calling for clear instructions on arrangements to medical practitioners and the public.
Fellow legislator Stephen Wong Yuen-shan urged the government to reveal how many children infected with Covid-19 had been separated from their parents and to provide psychological support to affected households.
The lawmaker called on health authorities to evaluate children’s mental state before admitting them, adding that hospitals and community isolation facilities should prioritise the admission of parents or carers of infected children to the same sites.
But Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager for patient safety and risk management, said on Monday that the exponential surge in coronavirus patients during the current outbreak had made it difficult for hospitals to accommodate parents’ requests.
“We attached importance to the children’s need to be accompanied by parents, but the fifth wave came very fast … we had to make a difficult decision to strike the balance,” Ho said.
A Hospital Authority spokesman told the Post that infected children in stable condition were allowed to rest at home. Hospitals would also try to arrange for parents and their admitted youngsters to stay in the same ward if both were infected, he said.
In cases where parents or carers tested negative for Covid-19, the authority would consult the Centre for Health Protection on requests to accompany infected children, subject to the availability of isolation units.
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