Orphaned by the second wave of the pandemic
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON THE NIGHT OF MAY 1ST, NEELU Chauhan, 40, all but fell at the feet of her mother-in-law, Dhanna Chauhan. A resident of Kamlaganj in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, Neelu was admitted in the Siddhivinayak hospital because of Covid complications but her health concerns were the last thing on her mind. “She actually walked to the gate of the hospital and asked me to take her back home. She was worried about her children and kept saying, ‘My children will be orphaned, please take me home’,” recalls Dhanna. Neelu had lost her husband, Naval Chauhan, just a year ago to an ailment. Her three children, two daughters and a son, are all under 10 years of age.
Neelu died of Covid that very night. The ambulance driver left the body on her doorstep. She was finally taken for cremation the next morning. In a footage shared by a neighbour, the children can be seen standing next to their mother’s prone body, crying, even as neighbours keep their distance. “The children have barely eaten one square meal since they’ve lost their mother. They were up half the night crying yesterday. All they had was a glass of milk. I don’t know how to help them out of this,” says Dhanna. Open spoke to the three siblings though it was only the youngest, Ritu, 7 (name changed), who talked at length. “I miss my mother a lot. She wasn’t even that unwell, there was cough and a slight fever. And now she’s gone.” The private hospital where Neelu was being treated has served the family with a hefty bill. Neelu ran a small shop from which she sold household cleaning items like brooms, and there wasn’t much in the form of savings, Dhanna says. “All I want is for these children to get a good education. Is there any way to ensure that?” she asks. A retired teacher, she is hopeful her pension will stretch enough to look after the children well.
The Chauhan siblings are part of a very unexpected and tragic fallout of India’s deadly second wave of the pandemic. About 2.79 lakh deaths have been reported in India due to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. A big percentage of these deaths has been recorded since March this year when the second wave started gathering momentum. Unlike last year, more younger people have been infected this year. This has meant that the fatality has hit age groups with young families, often leaving children either orphaned or with a single parent. Social media, always quick with a pithy term to label situations, tags this group of children, of which the Chauhan siblings are now a part, as ‘covid orphans’.
“Last year in March as we were going into lockdown, we realised children would suffer. We weren’t worried about the disease as such but the secondary effects from migration, loss of livelihood, nutrition, absence of school. But the past month-and-a-half has been the worst in terms of children getting infected, losing parents which enhances their vulnerability factor manifold,” says Nicole Rangel, co-founder of Leher, a Mumbai-based child rights organisation.
It was sometime in late April that the appeals first started showing up on social media—asking for ‘good samaritans’ to come forward and adopt children who had been orphaned because of Covid. It would be unfair to say what came first—the horror or the alarm bells—but the response was swift. Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani put out a thread on May 4th informing people that it is their legal responsibility to inform either the police or district child welfare committee if they knew of a child orphaned because of Covid and with no one to take care of them. The third alternative is to call 1098, the child helpline. ‘If anyone contacts you regarding orphan children available for direct adoption, do not get into the trap & stop them. We all must ensure legal adoption, otherwise children can be trafficked in the name of adoption,’ Irani further tweeted.
On May 6th, Irani’s ministry asked the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to add a column in hospital admission forms directing patients to specify guardians for their children in case of an eventuality. By this time, state governments like Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka had started separate helplines meant for children in distress during the pandemic. Other state governments like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu would follow in a few days, actively reaching out to civil society to provide some form of care and shelter to children who were either orphaned and without a caretaker, or whose parents were in hospital. Madhya Pradesh, where the Chauhan family lives, has since announced a monthly amount of Rs 5,000 for children orphaned due to Covid apart from free education. Dhanna isn’t aware of this development though the family was given Rs 51,500 by the district collector’s office once their plight became known.
According to a May 16th report in The Hindu, child helpline 1098 recorded 51 calls between May 1st and May 12th for children whose parents succumbed to Covid. However, this is by no means an indicative figure as there are other helplines, too, and several cases go unreported. “In my personal opinion, the whole model of distress calls is important but flawed,” feels Anurag Kundu, chairperson for the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR). “All state governments have a database of the deaths that have occurred. In the case of the Delhi government, we asked the health department to provide us with deaths in the age group of 35-50 on the reasonable assumption that the children of people in this age group would be under 18. We have since then proactively reached out to 2,000-plus children who have been affected by the pandemic. We always begin each call with the most basic of courtesies, asking them how they are doing,” says Kundu.
Currently, India has a strong framework for handling abandoned or orphaned children under the Juvenile Justice Act. Any such case first needs to be assessed by a social worker in the district child welfare committee. The most desirable option is to place the child with an immediate family member. Failing this, the child is put in an institution. If there is an extended family whose approval can be sought, the child is included in the central pool of children legally available for adoption. In India, adoption can only be done by registering with the Central Adoption Resource Authority, a statutory body with the Ministry of Women and Child Development. However, most people remain unaware of the legal intricacies of adoption, and hence, the response to the social media pleas.
THE LOSS OF PARENTS DUE TO A CALAMITY OR an illness is by no means a Covid phenomenon. Lessons learnt from past natural disasters which have left children orphaned lean heavily in favour of kinship care, a phenomenon where the child is taken in by a blood relative or even extended members of the community. “This is an organic practice where the child remains in an environment familiar to him/her,” informs Rangel. Even neighbours can come forward to take responsibility if they so desire, but in such cases an assessment by the district child welfare committee might be mandatory. However, such is the fear of Covid that even immediate family members are unwilling to come forward to even house the children while parents are hospitalised. For instance, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of children, got an anonymous tip-off that somewhere in Chhattisgarh, two children were in deep distress because both their parents were in hospital, and no one wanted to go near them. The children had been going hungry. The organisation worked actively with the state administration to track down the children and get them help.
Traditionally in villages, community ties are believed to be stronger, but 18-year-old Soni Kumari of Raniganj in Bihar’s Araria district will tell you how Covid has changed all that. Soni and her two minor siblings lost their father on May 7th and their mother on May 11th to Covid. While their father passed away in the hospital, their mother died on her way to one. “No one came forward to help us. The villagers even told us not to cremate my parents for fear of contamination. We buried the bodies in a nearby field. People stood afar and watched. When my father had died, no one came forward to even ask us if we had eaten.” But Soni doesn’t hold any grudges or nurtures any expectations. She is currently trying to manage her grief and support her siblings. “They are 12 and 14. Sometimes they lapse into their earlier habits, they will fight and bicker. It is like a flash of normalcy but then I remember, I am the adult now, I have to keep us all together.” Soni has enrolled in SNB College in Raniganj and will continue with her studies once the college re-opens. As will her siblings. “My parents were very quiet people. When my father developed symptoms, he isolated himself, forbade us from going near him. I don’t think either of them envisaged a future where they won’t be there for us.” The children have received compensation from the state government, but money is the last thing on Soni’s mind right now.
There is an element of fear and dread in the village, admits Saroj Kumar Mehta, Soni’s neighbour and the village mukhiya. “What happened with the children is a tragedy, but we are all there for them. Since Soni is of age, they don’t need a legal guardian, but we are there for emotional support,” he says. Mehta is himself positive, but asymptomatic.
Add to this the mental toll on children. With mobile phones, access to news is easy and children even in the smallest of villages in remote districts are aware of oxygen shortages and people dying. Abhishek works with Sarvo Prayas Sansthan, an NGO in northern Bihar. For the past one month, his duties have sent him to villages across Madhubani district where he has been spreading awareness about the disease and talking to ASHA workers and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) about how to handle potential cases in villages. “Children are very irritable these days. They are also petrified. When I go on my rounds, there are children who are principal caregivers. They are worried about what will happen to them if they lose their parents, while the others are worried about what will happen if their parents get infected.
Everyone is locked inside homes, consuming news from cities like Delhi and terrified that it is going to be them next.”
India has 472 million children who represent almost 40 per cent of the country’s population. And since 73 per cent of India’s households are rural (Socio Economic and Caste Census data), a big percentage of this 472 million is struggling with access to education, healthcare and protection. According to data revealed by ChildLine, there has been a distinct uptick in distress calls since the pandemic began, with especially those regarding child marriages. “A woman vegetable vendor, a single parent, took a loan of Rs 40,000 from a local moneylender to tide over the lockdown last year. She was unable to pay the money and was forced to marry her daughter to the man,” says Chezian Ramu, director, Terre des Hommes CORE Trust, a child rights NGO that works in five districts of Tamil Nadu. From teen pregnancies to forced marriages to increased vulnerability to physical as well as sexual abuse, the challenges children are facing during the pandemic are manifold. “The first mode of protection for a child is the school. They spend the bulk of their day here, there is a hot meal, a peer network. But with the lockdown, everything has come to a standstill. A child has less access to sharing information or even calling a helpline,” he says. According to a UNICEF study, the closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. Child rights activists worry that many children will simply not return to school when things start opening again.
Sonal Kapoor of Protsahan India Foundation has been raising concerns about the increased risk of physical and sexual violence among children since last year. According to her, the second wave has only added more layers to an already complex problem. “Every day we are inundated with calls. The other day, there was a report about a father shellshocked by his wife’s death. His three children had been without food for three days. That required an intervention. We also found out that a father was sexually abusing his three minor daughters. The situation of children in the second wave is nothing short of an emergency,” she fears.
Amid all these concerns, there is also the issue of mental health to be dealt with. On-ground activists to government officials, all stress the importance of therapy for children in this phase. “Children often don’t have the vocabulary to express the emotional upheaval they are experiencing. In the case of loss, trauma might express itself as anxiety, depression, irritability, loss of appetite, etcetera,” says Dr Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant, Mental Health & Psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. Depending on the social and economic background of a child, the stress factors may vary, but they remain for all of them. If left untreated/undiagnosed, childhood trauma can often lead to permanent scars through adulthood which can express themselves in various ways. “The coping mechanism for every individual is different, but addiction is a real fear. In the case of children, this is not always intoxicants. These days, it is digital addiction where they are constantly glued to the screen, consuming news and content which can contribute to anxiety and depression.”
Dhanna Chauhan is not an expert on mental health but she does know the benefits of letting her grandchildren express their pain and sadness. “I encourage them to talk about their mother, remember her. People say I should ask them to not think about the loss, but how is that even possible? I am a mother who lost her son. How do you ever forget something like that? But you can move past it.” And she is determined that her grandchildren will do so too.