Covid-19 leaves trail of orphaned children & helpless widows

Mass tragedy sets alarm bells ringing over child protection

Politics

July 28, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Covid-19 leaves trail of orphaned children & helpless widows

In India, The Lancet says, about 119,000 children lost a primary caregiver — one or both parents, or one or both custodial grandparents (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

One of the biggest tragedies of the Covid-19 pandemic, that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in India, is the number of children left without a parent or their primary caregiver. This has caused concern amongst NGOs working with children over their future and many caution against rise of dangers like child trafficking, child abuse and child marriages.

A recent report by British medical journal, The Lancet, said that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an estimated 1.5 million children facing the loss of a parent or a caregiver, either a grandparent or other older relative in their home, including over a million who lost one or both parents. In India, The Lancet says, about 119,000 children lost a primary caregiver — one or both parents, or one or both custodial grandparents. Among them, 116,000 lost one or both parents.

Another report by a daily newspaper in India said that there was an 8.5-fold rise in the number of children newly orphaned in April 2021 as compared to the preceding month. It said that as many as 43,139 children were orphaned in April as against 5,091 in March. This is due to the high fatality rates during the second wave of the pandemic which took hold from April and ravaged the entire country for nearly three months.

Dubious data

But there are many who point at several global and Indian studies that estimate India severely under-reported the death count during Covid-19 for multiple reasons – from lack of testing, deaths at home or outside the hospitals and the general attitude of various governments to disclose far fewer deaths than what took place. As pieces of data are emerging, there is a clear unanimity that the real number of victims of the pandemic in India is over four million and not the current official count of 420,000.

With far higher number of dead, it is but logical that the number of children orphaned would also be higher. Organisations working with children seem to agree with this. “The actual numbers are way more than the numbers given by the ministry. We are on the ground and can see that there is a huge gap between the numbers provided by the ministry and the actual figures. We, at Child Welfare Committee (CWC), are actually working here and we have seen that just in one district, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, at least 20 children have lost both their parents. And we have come across cases of around 1800 kids who have lost one parent, out of which 650 we have verified. We are still in the process of verifying the other data,” says Hanif Shaikh, chairman of Ahmednagar CWC, a government body mandated with protection of children in its area.

He adds that the government data shows that about 5500 died due to Covid-19 in Ahmednagar, but that the various NGOs estimate that the numbers are much higher. “More than 9,000 people have died due to Covid-19 in Ahmednagar district alone. We are constantly in touch with the NGOs that are working with people who have lost someone due to Covid-19. So we can see the difference,” Shaikh tells Media India Group.

He says that the government has not provided proper data and has been giving only round numbers, missing out many more than those captured by the data. For instance, he explains, there are many people who completed their treatment and left the hospitals only to pass away soon after and at home. Data of these people has not been considered, he says.

Orphans & widows pay the price for data failure

The pandemic has claimed lives of many more men than women or children, largely because in an overwhelming proportion of households there is a sole breadwinner and almost always it is the father.

The death ratio of men is much more than women. As for age group, ratio of men in the age group of 20-40 years-old have died due to Covid-19 and in women above the age of 40, their ratio is just 10 pc.

There have been reports from various states showing that men constituted anywhere between 66-75 pc of all deaths registered during the pandemic. Shaikh says his organisation’s data, though much smaller than most other estimates, is even more heavily stacked against men, adding that in the age group of 20-40 years old, women made up for only 10 pc of the total deaths.

According to a report in The Lancet, in India 91,000 women have become widows due to the pandemic (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

The biggest losers of the undercount in deaths due to Covid-19 are the families of the deceased, especially the widows and children. Besides the fact that the breadwinner of the family is no more, if the death is not registered as being due to the coronavirus, then the families find themselves deprived of any financial assistance offered by the government, irrespective of the size.

For instance, the central government has announced a few welfare schemes for children who have lost their parents to COVID-19, including free education and a corpus of INR 1 million when they turn 23 years. Similarly, a number of state governments have also stepped up and offered compensation. For instance, the Delhi government has offered INR 500,000 to the next of the kin of those killed by the pandemic.

But since the compensation is directly linked to a proof that the victim died due to Covid-19, most of the families are unlikely to receive any benefits in the absence of such evidence. “The cause of death of many people has been shown as heart attack or lung failure. So many people would be deprived of any benefits,” says Shaikh.

What perhaps makes it worst for the affected families is that a significant number of them belong to the poorer sections of the society. “People who are approaching CWC at this moment are mostly from lower income groups. We are seeing cases from rural areas and slums the most. But there are some from middle class as well, like teachers and health workers,” he says.

In many families where the male earning member has succumbed to the pandemic, the entire burden of managing the household falls on the shoulder of the widow, who more often than not have been left penniless while trying to save their husbands. Many of them turn out to be even more unfortunate, with mountains of hospital bills to settle.

“The biggest problem they are facing is the huge hospital bill. Most of the widows have hospital bills amounting from INR 150,000 to INR 900,000. Now the women are facing this huge challenge of repaying the debt. They took private loan as well as loans from their relatives,” recounts Heramb Kulkarni, a social activist and member of Maharashtra Corona Ekan Mahila Punarvasan Samiti, an umbrella organisation that brings together over 150 NGOs in Maharashtra.

He says his organisation works for widowed women and through them it also helps their children. Kulkarni says that while Maharashtra government has come up with schemes to help the children who lost a parent to the pandemic, but no one is paying attention to the widows. “Both the state and central governments have done nothing for the widows. According to a report in The Lancet, in India 91,000 have become widows due to the pandemic and since a third of all deaths are in Maharashtra, so, in the state around 20,000-30,000 women have been widowed due to the pandemic,” Kulkarni tells Media India Group.

His group has begun a programme to rehabilitate the widows and is working with over 150 NGOs spread across 22 districts of the state. Most of women are very young and have children. Not just the children, but they also have the responsibility of taking care of their in-laws. Most of them are from rural areas and are unaware of social schemes run by the government. “A few months ago a pregnant widow came to us along with her two daughters, aged six and four. She was seven months pregnant. Her husband was a daily wager. When I asked her what is she going to do now she said that she used to work with her husband as a daily labourer and will resume work soon after the delivery. She had no idea about government scheme for widows, so we helped her file the application,” says Kulkarni, recounting one such case.

The group has now begun a survey to find out if the widowed women want to give up their kids up for adoption, in order to reduce the fiscal and mental stress of the women left alone to fend for rather large families.

Mixed fate of orphans

The life of widows may indeed be extremely difficult, but the worst hand has been delivered to those children who have lost both their parents as a result of the pandemic. Here, too, there are diverse scenarios. While most of the children have lost a single parent to the pandemic, but there were many who had already lost a parent or had been living with a single parent.

Some of the orphaned children have been fortunate enough to find a loving relative or grandparents adopting them. Shaikh says that the people who have come forward to adopt them range from uncles, aunts or grandparents. In these cases, the relatives do not want the children to be adopted by others, either due to the love of the children or even societal pressure as handing over orphaned children of close relatives would be looked down upon by the society. This is also perhaps the best for children due to familiarity and an existing trust and relationship.

Shaikh dispels fears that some of the relatives may be more lured by the money that they would get on behalf of the orphans as per the government schemes. But the attraction of over INR 1 million in a country where the mean household income per year is only INR 1,35,050 (MoSPI data), is already leading to fights over the custody of orphaned children.

Shraddha, a 23-year-old worker at a day care centre, who hails from a village close to temple town of Shirdi, is currently in the midst of such a turmoil. She had lost her father a long time back and earlier this year, her mother, too, died, a victim of the pandemic. However, the real struggle for Shraddha was to get the custody of her 17-year-old sister Sapna (name changed). Shraddha has a younger brother Jaitesh, 21, who after the death of their mother began to mistreat the sisters. “Once I had to come to Mumbai for my jaundice treatment, he didn’t allow my younger sister to enter the house for the entire day,” Shraddha tells Media India Group. She goes on to say that while initially Jaitesh refused to seek custody of the younger sister, being a minor, when their relatives told him that he might get the money from government scheme for orphans, he became greedy and said he wanted to take custody of the younger sister. Faced with two claimants, the CWC officials asked Sapna, the minor child, about her choice and where she wanted to stay.

Shaikh says that the CWC follows a proper process and indepth checks before deciding who should get the custody of the kids. “When Jaitesh came to me and told me that he wants the custody of his younger sister, I decided to speak to Sapna But when Sapna told me that she would not want to stay with him as he beats them up and would rather go with Shraddha, I took immediate action.”

While the story seems to have ended happily for Shraddha and Sapna, not every child may turn out to be as fortunate. Ever since the economy went into a downward spiral after prolonged lockdowns last year, several NGOs and child rights activists had been ringing alarm bells over a sharp spike in ill-practices like child marriages as well as child trafficking as some of the parents, in sheer desperation, began to look at all options of cutting the number of mouths to feed.

All this was well before the murderous second wave that began in March. With parents no longer around to protect their children or take care of them, the thousands of orphaned children may indeed be facing a much darker future.

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