swab sample India children covid
A health worker takes swab sample of children to test for COVID-19 in Prayagraj, India Image Credit: AP

The poignant image of two young brothers- the elder one not even in his teens, lost amidst the pendulum of hope and grief in a hospital refuses to go away. It was as though the boys were themselves in a movie, but mere bystanders as they watched crowds around them milling in a fast forward motion.

They looked their age- bewildered, as they waited for news of their covid stricken mother, but didn’t know who or where to ask for help.

I don’t know their fate- whether they still have faith or they were just swallowed by a sea of wailing humanity.

A generation displaced

Since the pandemic, children have been India’s invisible people. But now in the devastating second wave, many of them have also become displaced. So many children are silent witness of their only world shattering, by losing either one or both parents. Some will forever bear the scars of seeing them slip in front of their eyes.

India, a country with nearly 30 million orphans is now staring at another wave- the tragedy of the COVID orphans. Anurag Kundu Chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) admits that this is no less than an emergency, “COVID-19 pandemic has caused thousands of children to be left without a parent. In some cases, without both parents. Parental loss is emerging as national emergency and I hope the government recognises it as such.”

Amongst these children are some who are still unaware that life has changed for them, that they will have to grow up overnight. Many relatives may not have the bandwidth to break the news, at other times these hapless children are left with social workers- who are still strangers, to process their grief.

Sonal Kapoor, Founder Director of Protsahan India Foundation that works with children in slums tells me that within an hour they were informed of 47 children between the ages 2-8 years who had lost their only bread earning member- fathers to COVID. Kapoor admits that they are finding themselves severely stretched and overwhelmed.

The magnitude of this calamity is likely to be more pronounced in the poorer sections of society where many deaths not just go unreported, but the virus also carries a stigma with it. Bodies are now floating in the ghats of the Ganga river in Bihar and a man had to carry his dead wife on a cycle for miles because villages would not allow him a cremation.

Where then will relatives open their arms to a child from a family of covid casualties? “iski mummy corona se khatam ho gayi. Iski jaldi shaadi kara denge, apne ghar chali jaye bas ab” (Her mother died due to COVID. Now we will get her married soon so she can be with her husband, and not our responsibility), a relative tells Protsahan Foundation that they intend to marry off the 14-year-old minor, soon.

Tales of agony and anguish

But even in urban areas where in ordinary times uninvited relatives and neighbours are the scourge of our daily living, people today may prefer to stay low. In Kolkata, a new born baby lost both her parents and paternal grandparents to the virus.

The police had to intervene for her maternal grandparents to take over her care, reluctantly. Whether permanent or temporary custody- an easy decision in normal times now needs police intervention.

Chances are that the real and truthful picture of this catastrophe will only unfold in the coming months, as with most data when it comes to the pandemic in India. But by then there is fear that the orphans who go unreported may disappear from the radar.

In the last few weeks social media has been inundated with messages on adopting children who have been left alone, something UNICEF has cautioned against. “The social media is currently filled with adoption "offers" of the children.

While some of it may be posted by well-meaning citizens who are ignorant of the legal provisions governing adoption, the sharing of private details on social media makes trafficking easier. DCPCR has come across several cases in which children are sold for a price. We have referred those matters to Police for inquiry,” says Kundu.

If immediate families don’t take in these orphans or help children left with an unwell or financially dependent single parent, then it is back to the drawing table. There is a system in place, and it is not through a WhatsApp forward or social media- a minefield on most days for the un-initiated from the unverified.

Anyone interested in adopting will have to go through a legal process that involves the nodal agency- Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) as has been the norm, pre-pandemic. By sharing messages, we are only exposing the children to danger.

In times like these we should all be closing in in collective solace but Covid has not brought out the best in everyone. Just like the thriving black market- whether it is medicines, cremations or concentrators, child counsellors are warning of a fertile hunting ground for not just the recently orphaned children.

Reports of Sex abuse, trafficking and even incest are more than a trickle. The Women and Child Development minister has also in a series of posts warned against posting images of bereaved children and flagged the trap of direct adoption where a predator could be masquerading as an affable family man.

Amongst other issues, Protsahan Foundation is also closely monitoring five cases of incest including a victim whose father lost his income during the pandemic. “My mother is scared to leave papa because she is financially dependent on him. She doesn’t know she is doing wrong by taking papa’s side.” The danger is also within.

“Multi-fold cases of children facing severe sexual exploitation even at the hands of their own family members, economic distress hence lack of nutrition, being pushed into child labour and trafficking as well, are a big concern. All these issues have to be taken cognizance of and provided systemic solutions for. We can't leave children to die or fend for themselves. Where is the dignity and care for the country's children?” asks Kapoor.

India's invisible wounds

The invisible wounds of these vulnerable children will need long term help, they have not just lost their identity. But building a safety net for them requires intent. Anurag Kundu sums it up, “parental loss is only a beginning of the trauma the child is set to experience. Family's income losses, poorer nutrition, compromised access to health care, and school drop-out is likely to plunge these families and next generation into poverty.”

Sometime soon we will have to collect the pieces and start the re-building process. And when we do, we will see that the pandemic has also made our future shaky- our children both the lucky ones and the less fortunate may not be in any shape to embrace what is theirs.

The wounds are deep and yet they have miles to go. Says Kapoor, “We’re looking at a generation of children in extreme distress and facing severe trauma who will grow up to be broken adults. Everyday, the stories from the ground are becoming more heart breaking even for civil society at large that has always worked in these spaces.

Need based interventions won’t just cut it, rights based thinking & policy needs to be key on issues like adoption, tackling vaccination hesitancy in remote pockets and covid orphans. These issues are not unrelated but larger pieces of the huge system crumbling domino effect."

Tonight, before you sleep spare a moment for these children, their smiles may be a long way away, but we can at least help them to heal. It is still not too late. But if we don’t act now they may well be remembered as the pandemic’s nowhere people.