Losing parents to Covid, many children stare at uncertain future
A 14-year-old boy was left alone at home for hours with the bodies of his parents as they succumbed to Covid-19 this month in north Delhi before he could gather himself and rush to a relative’s house to inform them about the deaths. “He could barely talk...he was silent for a minute... He kept calling his parents,” said a member of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for such children.
The boy’s mother, who was in her late 30s first developed Covid-19 symptoms, before he and his 41-year-old father contracted the disease. A doctor prescribed some drugs and the family managed to get an oxygen cylinder, but the couple succumbed to the disease at home.
Like the boy’s parents, a significant proportion of people, who have died as the second Covid-19 wave has overwhelmed India’s health system, are in their 30s and 40s. In many cases, children of people in this age group have lost both parents.
Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR ) chairperson Anurag Kundu said they have received many SOSs about children left alone as their parents were hospitalised or have lost whole of their immediate families. “At times, there is no one to even offer them food,” said Kundu.
A DCPCR volunteer, who did not wish to be named, said the NGO put them into touch with the family taking care of the 14-year-old boy. “We helped them connect with various child welfare committees to find this boy a better home. The family was very cooperative and had even taken him twice to a child psychologist for counselling. A woman in that family has been taking care of all his nutrition and medicines since he is still Covid-19 positive.”
The family has refused any institutional support and initially set up a fundraiser to pay for the debt the boy’s parents incurred for their medical expenses. “Over ₹two lakh was raised in a day and all the debts of his parents were cleared...” the volunteer said. He added some of the boy’s close relatives live abroad. “...they [the family he is living with] have even started the legal proceedings to adopt him.”
Kundu said in many other cases, one parent of children is hospitalised while the other has passed away. He added in most cases, relatives have come forward and taken care of such children. Kundu said at least in two cases, children were left to fend for themselves. “We have shifted them to a shelter home in Delhi until we find some accepting family to take care of them and contribute to making their life better.”
Kundu said people are always willing to accept such children. “Even our preference for a child is a domestic setup rather than any institutional care but there is a legal process for adoption.” He added they need to undertake thorough background checks of families, who come forward to adopt such children.
Sonal Kapoor Singh, the founder of an NGO working for children at risk or having experienced traumatic events, said the last few months have been disastrous. “We have been working to help children in 40 slums for 10 years to help them recuperate from various traumas. The last few months have been very disturbing. Excluding children, who have lost both parents to Covid, there are cases where the condition of children is worse than those orphaned by the pandemic.”
Singh said they have received complaints about children being deserted by their fathers after their mothers died of Covid-19. “In many cases, young girls have been forced to do hard labour for lesser wages as both their parents have died of Covid-19.” Singh added there are also cases of girls in these slums, who were sexually assaulted by their fathers rendered jobless by Covid-19, as they are home throughout the day while mothers are out busy working.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a child rights organisation run by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, said they have received over 200 SOS calls from across India in just two days about children losing the whole of their immediate families. “There are calls from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi and many other states where there is no one to take the care of these children. For now, we are trying to send teams with food...” said Paroma Bhattacharya, a representative of the organisation. “In many cases, we are helping the government in shifting these children to shelter homes for now.”
Joshita Nag, a social worker from Kolkata, said she has come across many WhatsApp forwards requesting people to take custody of children whose parents have died. “It is not just illegal but horrible for the existence of these children.” She added it could lead to trafficking in the name of help. “Some people are doing a greater damage,” Nag said. She appealed to people to immediately contact child rights protection panels in such cases.
An 18-year-old, who identified himself with his second name Upadhyay, said they face a double whammy after losing their father for the want of medical care outside a Delhi hospital. “My mother got better with that injection [remdesivir]. Father died as he developed pneumonia.” He said his father was a businessman. “We had a small manufacturing plant... after taking a loan. Soon after the first wave of Covid-19 began, our business failed. Even our labourers left, and we could not pay the loan instalments to the bank. The bank officials since then have been harassing us and now after my father has passed away, I do not know what is going to happen. They apparently might take away our house. It is distressing, the virus first snatched our father and now might even make us homeless.”
In a tweet, Union women and child development minister Smriti Irani on Saturday said the government has been reaching out to the states and sought the protection of the children who lost parents to Covid-19. She added the ministry appealed to states to enable Child Welfare Committees to actively monitor the well-being of these children.
HT reached out to the officials of the ministry for fresh comments over the issue but there was no response despite repeated calls.
Bhavna Barmi, a child psychologist at Delhi’s Fortis Hospital, said it is very important that while taking custody of such children, the caretakers do not allow their minds to recount what has happened to them. “The first thing is that no one should offer condolences to such children as doing so recreates the whole scenario of grief in the child and expose him or her to trauma again,” said Barmi. “We should rather try to extend our nurturance to them by normalising their daily routine as it was earlier and try to make their emotions more relevant as they were with their parents.” Barmi said once the trauma slowly fades away, a sense of optimism should be imparted in them by allowing them to do healthy activities that they show interest in. “This shall allow them to happily pursue their goals in life ahead.”