As parents succumb to Covid-19 in India, children are in distress

As entire families are infected with Covid-19 in the second wave of the pandemic in India, there are increasing reports of children orphaned by the disease. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - For an hour, Mr Preetham Rodrigues, 42, pondered over the text message he had seen in a WhatsApp group.

"A four-year-old possibly asymptomatic child (orphaned by Covid) needs to be transported to Bangalore today... This person needs to be able to take care of a 4-year-old, feed him, maybe change diapers etc," the sender said.

Noah (name changed) lost his single mother, only 35, to Covid-19 on April 28 in Mangalore. An uncle and another cousin had also succumbed to the disease that same week and his grandmother was in critical care.

"All extended relatives were either elderly or unwell. A doctor from the hospital had taken care of the boy for a night after his mother died. I couldn't say no to helping him," said Mr Rodrigues, who has a five-year-old son himself. He volunteered to drive with Noah to Bangalore, where the grandfather lived.

Mr Rodrigues spoke to a children's counsellor who suggested ways to make the child comfortable, especially since he had been away from loved ones for days.

"I was wearing gloves and a mask and was a total stranger, so I took a small toy to give the child. He talked about his mother - he knew she was sick, but not that she was gone. I told him stories and he fell asleep in my lap. He slept for most of the eight-hour journey, hugging me," said Mr Rodrigues.

Noah is now quarantined with his grandfather in Bangalore, but the family is still battling Covid-19. In a text message, the grandfather said he was himself recovering from the coronavirus and "anxious and stressed out" about a daughter-in-law who was in critical condition.

As entire families are infected with Covid-19 in the second wave of the pandemic in India, there are increasing reports of children orphaned by the disease.

In most cases, there are aunties, grandparents or family friends to swoop in to the child's aid but child rights activists say that the infectious virus has made relatives less generous.

For instance, it had taken a day to find someone willing to risk escorting the possibly Covid-19 positive Noah to Bangalore.

"Many neighbours and relatives in the second wave are refusing to go near children who are suspected Covid-19 cases. The majority of distress calls now are from children lost, alone or hungry because their parents are sick, or one has died and the other is in hospital," said Ms Sonal Kapoor, founder of non-profit Protsahan India Foundation that works on child rights in 48 slums in Delhi.

On the other hand, some orphaned children have been offered for adoption. One especially viral message asked people to call one Priyanka if they wanted to help two three-day and six-month-old girls orphaned by Covid-19 "get a new life."

"You can't put a child up for adoption through social media. This is illegal and dangerous because it could attract child traffickers," said Ms Manisha Biraris, Assistant Commissioner, Women and Children Development, Mumbai.

Messages posting photos, addresses and contact numbers of "Covid orphans" and offering them up for adoption have become common enough to spook child rights protection agencies across India into a frenzy of activity last week.

"If anyone contacts you regarding orphan children available for direct adoption, do not get into the trap and stop them. It's illegal," Mrs Smriti Irani, the minister for women and child development tweeted on May 4.

Family members of Covid-19 victims mourn during a cremation ceremony in Delhi, on May 6, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Concerned people, doctors or relatives must instead inform the district child welfare committee (CWC), the local police or the national Childline.

Since May 1, the Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka commissions for protection of child rights have instituted exclusive helpline numbers for children under distress in the pandemic.

They have alerted hospitals, child rights activists and the local police to bring vulnerable children into the government's purview.

On May 6, the Indian ministry of women and child development asked the health ministry to add a column to hospital admission forms seeking details of a trustworthy person whom the patient's children should be handed over in case of any eventuality.

According to the Juvenile Justice Act in India, abandoned or orphaned children must be assessed by a social worker in the district child welfare committee.

Ms Urmila Jadhav, member of the CWC, Mumbai, said: "We check if a close aunt or grandparents are willing to care for him or her, and if the child wants to be with them. After enquiry, we deem the relative a "fit person", a sort of guardian. This is the safest and healthiest option for an orphaned child."

If no one claims the child, authorities place the child in institutionalised care. If relatives approve it, they include him or her in the central pool of children approved for adoption.

People who want to adopt children in India can only do so by registering with the Central Adoption Resource Authority, a statutory body that matches children from all approved orphanages with prospective parents.

Child rights activists and medical professionals said that in the wave of empathy and concern for "Covid orphans", other vulnerabilities of children with Covid-affected parents were being neglected.

Indian social media is rife with calls for temporary homes or meals for children left alone at home or roaming in the hospital as their loved ones are in the critical care unit.

If no one claims the child, authorities place the child in institutionalised care. PHOTO: REUTERS

One message in late April asked someone to breastfeed a six-month-old child whose mother had died of Covid-19 in Bangalore. Another asked for legal help for a young adult in Kolkata to navigate complex medical insurance procedures for her unwell parents.

A few days ago, Ms Kapoor said she received a call from a teenager in Delhi whose father had died of Covid-19, and mother and brother were critically ill. "The 14-year-old asked how to get his father's body home from the mortuary," she said.

She rattled off the 11 calls she got in Delhi on Saturday alone. Among them, were five hungry siblings with a deceased father and an unwell mother, a fourth grader whose father had gone into shock after his wife's death and had not fed his son for three days, and a five-year-old drawn into child labour after his parents lost their jobs in the pandemic.

In Bangalore, Ms Zibi Jamal, a member of neighbourhood group Whitefield Rising said the community had helped sign up a 15-year-old with autism, a toddler sibling and their house help who were all infected with the coronavirus.

"While the house help could feed the kids till the parents recovered, all three needed medical care too," said Ms Jamal.

Whitefield Rising has now issued an advisory asking parents to write wills, proactively identify "back-up caregivers" who have no comorbidities or ageing parents - "ideally, people the kids know" - and create an information package about the child's medication, school schedule and personality.

Beyond their immediate needs, insisted all activists, children needed counselling to work through grief and trauma.

Ms Zoor Barooah, 22, whose parents succumbed to Covid-19 a week ago, said: "Everywhere I see, close family is losing someone. It seems like a never-ending process."

Ms Zoor Barooah lost both her journalist parents to Covid-19 a week ago in Delhi. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZOOR BAROOAH

Mr Kalyan Barooah and Nilakshi Bhattacharjee were well-known journalists in their 50s, and died within a day of each other on Apr 30 and May 1.

"I was awfully close to it, oscillating between finding my mother a hospital and monitoring my father's critical condition. Then I started feeling weak and had to quarantine myself... until my mother died," the film student said.

Now living with her aunt, Ms Barooah said "it still hadn't sunk in".

"But everyday, we are talking for hours about Maa and Dad. It helps to recall the happy memories," she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.