Media in Kazakhstan have reported that 4 children living in a state residential institution for children with disabilities have died, while a further 16 were hospitalized with measles and intestinal infections.
The institution, located in Ayagoz, a town in eastern Kazakhstan, has been under quarantine since early April due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Medical professionals, including the region’s head pediatrician, have not attributed the children’s deaths or illnesses to Covid-19. But the tragic deaths and numerous hospitalizations serve as an urgent reminder that children in residential institutions are at particular risk from infectious diseases.
The risk of Covid-19 exposure is higher among populations that live in close proximity to each other, where the virus can spread rapidly. In addition, the virus disproportionately affects people with underlying conditions, which may be the case for some children with disabilities. More than 100 residents live in the children’s institution where the 4 children died.
While authorities have taken the important steps of opening an investigation on criminal charges of medical negligence in this case and initiating comprehensive inspections of these types of children’s residential institutions across Kazakhstan, these deaths and hospitalizations should also spur the authorities to do more. They should take urgent measures to move as many children with disabilities as possible out of state residential institutions and into family-based care.
The virus poses a specific threat to the hundreds of children with disabilities currently living in institutions in Kazakhstan, but it’s not the only one. Human Rights Watch has found that the children are also at risk of physical violence, forced sedation, isolation, and and neglect. Some children told us that staff beat them, forcibly administered sedatives to punish or control them, and forced them to take care of younger children.
Regardless of this pandemic, home remains the best place for children with disabilities. The Kazakh government should urgently look to reallocate resources from institutions to families or other family settings in the community, so they have the necessary support to care for their children.
Until the children can safely be moved out, authorities should increase infection control measures inside institutions, ensure all people within them can practice social distancing, and provide adequate access to health care for residents and staff.
In doing so, they may help prevent the kind of tragedy that unfolded in eastern Kazakhstan.