Undocumented cries of children in Covid-ravaged India

Experts question government numbers on Covid orphans

Society

May 28, 2021

/ By Richa Nigam / New Delhi

Undocumented cries of children in Covid-ravaged India

Ministry of women & child development of government of India said that 577 children across the country have been orphaned in past 55 days by second wave of Covid-19 (MIG Photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

Of all the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the worst has been to children who have lost their parents and caretakers to the virus. Left without their parents, these Covid orphans face not just the risk of the deadly infection and emotional trauma, they are also highly vulnerable to exploitation as they face negligence by society as well as the government.

Mira and Akriti (names changed), six and four-year-old respectively, run around with their dollhouse and a toy-kitchen set as they cannot decide on what to cook for their make-believe dinner party. With toy kitchen-sets in their hands, they fight with each other as they are unable to decide who will play the host at their dinner.

While both children continue to argue, their uncle, 34-year-old Manoj Mehta, looks at them with a sigh of relief. “I am so relieved to see that they continue to live a life full of laughter and joy that every child deserves. I dread thinking of the day I will have to tell them the truth that their mother and father are no more,” says Mehta, a Bengaluru-based engineer. He lost his elder brother and sister-in-law to Covid-19 about a month ago. He has decided to take care of their two children, Mira and Akriti, and plans to adopt them legally soon.

“I am so relaxed to see these children happy. They are too naive to realise the gravity of the situation. I have told them that their parents have gone somewhere for a few months. I will adopt them legally and will do everything to make sure that they have a good life,” says Mehta looking at the children playing at some distance.

Children without carers

While Mira and Akriti are relatively lucky to have a family and a caregiver despite their parents’ demise, not all children, whose parents have succumbed to Covid-19, have the same fortune.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a New Delhi-based children’s rights group, tracked down two boys aged six and eight after it was informed that their parents were both severely ill with Covid-19 and unable to care for them. When the children were found by BBA in a village on the outskirts of the national capital, they had not eaten for days.

Unfortunately, this was but only one of a growing number of emergencies involving children affected by the devastating second wave of coronavirus crisis currently sweeping across the nation.

The exponential rise in infections and deaths has left some children, particularly in poor communities, without a carer because their parents or other relatives are too ill to cope or have died. “Because the number of deaths has increased, the crisis is that either children are losing their parents, or their caregivers are hospitalised, and there is no one to take care of them,” says Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of BBA.

He adds that India’s underfunded social services are struggling to cope, and in certain parts of the country there remains a stigma around people who contract the virus, leaving some children isolated. “Neighbours and extended family do not want to help because they are afraid of infection, treating these families almost like outcasts,” says Tingal.

He says BBA, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi, started receiving calls about children in dire situations linked to the Covid-19 outbreak in early April. The volume of calls increased after Satyarthi posted a helpline number on Twitter on April 29.

Government data highly understated, say experts

Tingal says that BBA, at present, receives about 70 calls a day seeking help for children whose parents are dead or seriously ill, and a greater number of calls from parents who have tested positive and want to know if the group can take care of their children if their health fails.

In sharp contrast, earlier this week, the ministry of women and child development of the government of India said that 577 children across the country have been orphaned in the past 55 days by the second wave of Covid-19. However, many child right activists say the number is highly misleading. “They have just counted last 55 days but Covid-19 has been there for over a year now. You can only imagine how misleading this number is. I doubt if they have even taken into account all Indian cities and especially rural areas. This is as misleading as the official data on number of infections as well as deaths due to Covid-19,” Mamta Gupta, member of Bhopal-based Sahyog, an NGO that has been working on tracing and rehabilitation of children orphaned by the pandemic, tells Media India Group.

She goes on to say that the number of orphaned children is much higher in rural India where healthcare facilities are inadequate and reliable data is absent. She also says that most of the children traced by Sahyog, around 15 till now, that have been left behind after deceased parents, have also been neglected by the other family members and relatives amid poverty and fear of infection. “One of the worst parts, however, is that many of these children will tag along with some person and start working as child labour. Many small children will be forced into begging and prostitution, too, I think. The irony is that NGOs like ours, also have a limited reach in villages where children are more susceptible to exploitation,” she adds.

Vulnerability to exploitation

Girish Kulkarni, founder of Snehalaya, an NGO based in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district agrees with Gupta and says that the major problem is with the orphaned children who are not yet traced. “In many cases, the relatives have taken custody of kids. It is good that the children were cared by relatives they know but at the same time, there are a few children who have not been traced. These children are the most vulnerable group,” Kulkarni tells Media India Group.

He blames the government for neglecting these children. “The task force has done nothing for these children. They were not brought to institutions or in front of child welfare committee for further order of their care and protection. The department of woman and child development is not working proactively to trace these children,” he adds.

Shradhha Binay, a member of We care, a Bengaluru-based NGO, estimates that the actual number of orphaned children in India could be 10 to 20 times higher than the data presented by the government. “Desperate pleas to help children have been appearing on social media everywhere. Imagine the desperation that now children, like pet animals, are looking for families to adopt them through social media,” she says.

She adds that only after the release of some data, state governments began realising that children in their states may also have suffered the same fate. “A month ago, when we were going through the worst stage, nobody cared. Now suddenly, all state governments have decided to allot a nominal sum of money for these children. It is far from enough. It is almost laughable that if a child has lost their parents, you will provide them with INR 2000-3000 a month and their lives will come back on track. It is extremely insensitive,” says Binay.

She also says that besides money, these children also need a home to live in, education, emotional counselling and a care-taker to help them come out of trauma, which, she feels is easiest if relatives chose to do so, like Mira and Akriti, who have been living with their uncle for about two months now.

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