Even as the vaccination drive continues to prioritise people over the age of 45, it appears those in the 18-44 age bracket—eligible for vaccination and yet unable to find slots—are increasingly falling victim to the coronavirus infection. Not only is the infection in this age group far more severe during the second wave, and possibly because of the new variant, but the deaths have caused a related crisis: the minor children who are left behind, who are often referred to as “Covid orphans”.
The website of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare pegs the number of deaths at 283,248 with about 3.2 million active cases. Deaths are between 4000 and 5000 a day nationwide, and no verified statistics are available on the mortality figures for the 18-44 age group. But the death rate is estimated at around 10-15 percent of those infected for the 26-44 age group. This means around 30,000 deaths could have left behind children. Childline has reported receiving 51 calls between May 1 and May 12 about children who have no guardian after their parents succumbed to the coronavirus infection. The disparity in figures indicates that a huge number of children are at large, with no organisation looking out for them.
Concerns about the future of these children range from sexual exploitation to human trafficking. Even if they are not directly harmed, they might be left destitute, with no financial or emotional support—possibly with no food or shelter.
It was only on May 6 that the health ministry was asked by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to add a column in hospital admission forms asking patients to name a guardian for their minor children should the infection be fatal.
Child rights NGOs have been warning against illegal adoption networks, even as relatives try to find unofficial channels to palm off—or even sell—the children. Messages have been doing the rounds on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other social networks, asking for people to contact certain numbers to adopt children who have lost their parents to Covid-19. Not only does this circumvent the formal adoption channels, but it makes children particularly vulnerable by revealing personal details, including age, location, and contact number. All this at a time when there is a debate about whether adoption is the best route, or whether it is preferable for traumatised children to remain in kinship care with assistance from the state.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, states that any information about children in need of care must be relayed to Childline, the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC), the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) or the respective state Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Violations of the Act, which include posting or sharing posts offering children for illegal adoptions, are punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of Rs. 1 lakh.
Adoption is a much-debated topic, since it involves making a life-changing decision on behalf of human beings who are too young to understand the situation; grown-ups who were adopted as children often speak of the pressure of having to adjust within a non-birth family that has its own expectations of the adopted newcomers.
This pressure is particularly undesirable for children who have been through the trauma of losing their parents in the space of a week or less. Imagine having, as a child, watched a parent struggled to breathe even as tens or hundreds of others died waiting for beds and oxygen cylinders outside hospitals. Imagine having, as a child, being told one’s parent is dead without being able to say goodbye or even see a beloved face one last time. Imagine the impact such a shock could have on one’s mental health, the grief that must be carried for the rest of one’s life.
And even before we get to mental health care, there are more immediate concerns. Such as, what if relatives—even those who have been named as guardians—refuse to take custody of the child, for fear of infection? There has been an instance of a baby’s own parents abandoning her body because she was Covid-positive. There are other cases where children have been raised by single mothers, or who have been abandoned by their fathers after the death of the mother, and tracing family becomes near-impossible.
Second, although several state governments—including those of Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—have stepped forward to economically support children who have been left destitute by Covid-19, how will the children be able to access a solatium without guardians? Chances are that, although they are entitled to any inheritance their parents may have left, the children are not even aware of how to access their families’ savings let alone social benefits for which they may be eligible.
It is crucial that the states undertake an enumeration of children who have lost their parents to Covid-19, and instruct child protection agencies to track and trace them. The best case scenario is that they are being cared for by loving relatives, and even under those circumstances they would need counselling. They are at risk of far worse from neighbours, touts, and family who see them as a burden.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com