As the second wave of COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across India with more than 400,000 cases being reported daily in the country, thousands of families have lost their kin to the deadly virus.
While experts suggest that the mortality rate in the second wave is similar to last year’s wave, data shared by the Indian government clearly shows that the ratio of young adults, in the 30 to 40 age group, dying of the disease is higher than the first wave. This means there are more young children losing their parents and some have been left totally alone as their entire immediate family has succumbed to the virus.
Increased Child Abuse
While there are reports of girls as young as 14 being sexually exploited within their family during the pandemic, there are cases of minor girls as well who are being forced to work for very low wages.
Talking to The Diplomat, Sonal Singh, founder of the Protsahan NGO which works with children affected by trauma in India, says that the last few months have been very distressful.
“In slum areas of India where we usually work, there are children who have been deserted by their fathers after their mothers died of COVID. They are forced to do hard labor and are paid very little. They do not have an option as the government is yet to reach such children with any help. To feed themselves and in many cases their younger siblings as well, they have to do this work,” she says.
Singh adds that they have received reports of minor girls being sexually exploited by their fathers, who have been rendered jobless by the pandemic. “The mothers of these minor girls are working in the day and their jobless husbands are staying alone with these girls in slum sheds through the whole day. Many girls I talked to were sexually exploited by their fathers but they refuse to come forward and file a complaint as they are residentially dependent on their fathers and fear being homeless if they raise a voice.” Singh.
Trauma of an Orphan Life Ahead
Meanwhile in India’s capital, Delhi, where the government says that one person in every three has been infected with the virus, many children under the age of 14 have lost their immediate families to COVID-19.
Anurag Kundu, who heads the Indian government’s child rights protection commission in the national capital, says that in the last few days they have received more than 30 SOS messages about children who have lost everyone in their family and have been left alone.
Talking to The Diplomat, Kundu said that there are cases in which there has been no one taking care of such children. While most of the time one parent has succumbed to the virus and other remains hospitalized, there are also instances where children of single mothers became orphans.
“For now, we have identified many relatives and neighbors of these children who have taken the responsibility for temporary custody. We are ensuring that these children get sufficient care during this time for which we have scheduled periodic calls with affected children to inquire about their wellbeing,” says Kundu. He adds that there needs to be a behavioral check on the caretakers as the emotional situation of these children is very sensitive at the moment.
A volunteer from the child right’s commission told The Diplomat that he came across a few children who saw their parents die in front of their own eyes, gasping for breath outside hospitals as no beds or ventilators were available for them. He adds that the counselling of such children is very delicate. They are in a very fragile emotional state and talking to them about these traumatic events resurfaces them.
Dr. Bhavna Barmi, a senior child psychologist and behavioral consultant based in India, says that in today’s situation it has become all too common that children are confronted with the death of their parents. She adds that parentally bereft children in the pandemic may face unique challenges and the social isolation, institutional strain, and economic struggles caused by the pandemic might make them feel aloof and unsupported.
“The first thing we can do is to proactively connect all children to the available supports they are entitled to, like social security, child survivor benefits etc. Also, a national effort to identify and provide counselling and related resources to all children who lose a parent is vital, as it is a severe mental trauma that they go through,” says Barmi.
Barmi adds that these children should not be offered condolences and should be given an atmosphere similar to their past homes. “This will not make them feel at loss and helping them pursue their own childhood interests in life will largely help them to come out of the depressing past,” she says.
The Social Media Adoption
While Kundu says that there is a legal way to adopt a child through child welfare committees, the statutory government bodies in India empanelled to look after matters of child protection, social media in India is flooded with posts by people pleading for others to adopt such children.
“It is completely illegal and will lead these children to the hands of the human traffickers,” says Kundu. He adds that people, in a bid to show sympathy, are doing greater damage to these children by facilitating such unauthorized guardianship arrangements. “There needs to be a background check of the adopting family in supervision of government authorities, adopting children is not an online business,” adds Kundu.
Meanwhile, in a rural village in north India, Shanta Devi received a call. It was a young girl claiming to be a member of a child rights NGO, asking for financial help for a 12-year-old girl who had lost everyone to COVID-19 in Delhi.
Shanta, upon hearing the story says that she transferred a decent amount of money the child. They asked for an online payment and assured that it would be used for the child’s nutrition.
“After I tried calling them to know about the condition of the child the next day, I realized they had blocked my number. That’s when I understood that I have been duped,” she says while complaining that it was a crisis in the country at this time and filing a police complaint against these people would hardly bring any results.
Meanwhile, India’s Minister for Child Development Smriti Irani said that no organization or individual is officially authorized to take custody of children whose guardians have died from the pandemic unless authorized by the government. She said that they have established a dedicated child helpline number 1098 for the emergency messages about children who have lost their families COVID. Irani added that it was not legal for someone to transfer custody of an orphan child of anyone else.
Taking to Twitter, Irani wrote, “Such children should be taken to Child welfare committees immediately, which will take the necessary action in the best interest of the child. You cannot offer children for adoption on Twitter, it is illegal and can be considered as trafficking.”
The Diplomat also reached out to Debashree Chaudhury, Minister of State for Child and Women development for a comment but there was no response from the minister.