Protect children from the fallout of Covid-19| Opinion
The images of migrant workers making the arduous trek home have come to define the terrible fallout of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in India, even though there have been some positive outcomes. One story was particularly heart-rending. A couple, unable to find any other means of transport, set off to their distant home on a bicycle with their two children. En route, they were hit by a speeding vehicle. The parents died, leaving behind two injured children. As the pandemic takes its course, there will be more children left behind and this is what we must plan for now. The girl child is particularly vulnerable in these situations. All children are.
This pandemic will leave behind orphans. This leaves children open to various forms of exploitation from being forced into child labour, sexual violence and begging. Many older children may have to stop going to school to look after their siblings.
Children without parental support will not be able to fend off the virus, as many will be unable to observe physical distancing or access clean water and soap for hand-washing. They are not likely to even be aware of safe practices. If they are moved to State-run homes, in the absence of adult caregivers, it is unlikely that in these crowded places they will be safe from exploitation or from the disease. Several United Nations studies have shown that children in institutional care suffer from various health and cognitive function issues. Indian care homes are unsafe and poorly staffed at the best of times. This needs to be addressed as a challenge brought to light by Covid-19.
There are several things the government can do, including strengthening systems to find family members of children orphaned or stranded as a result of the virus. That should be the first option before considering moving children to a State-run facility.
Social workers should engage with them as many will be traumatised by the sudden loss or absence of one or both parents. The Covid-19 crisis will exacerbate extreme poverty in India. Children of migrant workers and others below the poverty line will be at greater risk as inequalities grow.
Studies show that child labour is linked to financial setbacks in a family brought on by illness or loss of employment for a parent. They could also become vulnerable to child traffickers who may promise the parents a better life for the child with the prospect of income in cities. Economic hardship is also a major factor in the increase in child marriages. The girl child, considered a burden on the family’s means, could be married off early to reduce the pressure on limited resources.
The State must step up vigilance on the plight of children affected by the Covid-19 fallout. Governments must expand the midday meal scheme even if they are out of school, as Kerala has done as insurance against their being forced into the labour market or marriage.
Children are not in the picture as a group which needs support, even though they are at enormous risk. The pandemic has shown us the weaknesses in our systems to protect the most vulnerable. India must now plan for the fact that normal school life will not resume soon. Many may not go back into the school system at all.
With the substantial economic package, the prime minister is looking at building both economic and social capital. He mentions demography as a pillar of the government’s revival plan. For this, the future generation has to be taken care of much better than is being done now.
The infusion of capital into efforts to push back the pandemic and get the economy moving must include children’s rights and security as a fundamental pillar.