BANGALORE - Three months after living with his aunt, a nine-year-old boy in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu has finally begun to make sense of his parents' long absence.
The boy's 30-something father, who worked in a state-owned liquor shop, died of Covid-19 in March. A day later, his wife also succumbed to the virus. Their two sons have since been living with relatives.
"The boy now consoles his seven-year-old brother, saying he should not cry every day. He is not even 10 and he already comprehends the finality of death," the aunt told The Straits Times.
India recorded around 350,000 Covid-19 cases a day in the second wave of the pandemic this year, with entire families infected. While the cases are down to 100,000 a day now, many children have lost their parents.
"In the second wave, the loss of life has been greater, and visibly more children are impacted, so it has made us sit up and notice," said Ms Bharti Ali, co-founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation.
In May, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) set up an online portal to keep track of such children. As at May 30, it found that 9,346 children had been abandoned or had lost one or both parents between April 2020 and May 29, 2021.
Of these, 1,742 children have lost both parents. The NCPCR data is probably an underestimate as it includes only statistics from hospitals, and not deaths at home, unregistered deaths, or those that occurred before a Covid-19 test was conducted.
Since April, social media messages have announced "Covid orphans" as young as four months to seven years as needing "a loving home". Moved, many families across the country have offered to adopt them.
The response has alarmed child welfare activists - they say such calls for adoption, though well intentioned, are not only illegal but also not in the interest of the child.
"During every crisis like this pandemic, or natural calamities like the 2004 tsunami, when children are thrown out of family protection, NGOs and individuals spring up to care for them. It might be a humanitarian response, but what happens to such institutionalised children later is questionable," said Mr Vasudeva Sharma, executive director of the Bangalore-based non-profit Child Rights Trust.
Ms Padma Priya, co-founder of Suno India, which hosts a podcast on adoption called Dear Pari, said the "outpouring of compassion" was natural, but she was worried that it seemed driven by sympathy.
"One must not adopt for these reasons and should look at adoption as another way of making a family. This Good Samaritan behaviour can actually cause more harm to a child," she said.
Indian laws put adoption as the last resort for vulnerable children. Instead, they privilege kinship care.
District child welfare agencies first try to place the child with existing, eligible relatives like grandparents, uncles and aunts. Such an arrangement could be temporary, till foster homes are found, or the same relatives can apply for legal guardianship at a later stage.
The NCPCR data shows that a majority (96 per cent) of children who lost parents to Covid-19 in the past year were in the care of a guardian, family member or a surviving parent. Only 364 were in shelter homes, orphanages or under the care of "special adoption agencies".
"Every child who lost both parents doesn't need to be given up for adoption. We need to have some faith in the communities, relatives and extended families, and invest in them instead," said Ms Ali.
Accordingly, many states have offered financial help.
The Delhi and Chhattisgarh governments will bear education expenses of children who have lost both parents to Covid-19. Delhi also announced that it would pay each child 2,500 rupees (S$45) every month till they turn 25.
Andhra Pradesh will deposit a million rupees for every child orphaned by infection. Madhya Pradesh will provide free education and a pension of 5,000 rupees per month to children whose parents died of Covid-19. The children will also get free rations like wheat and oil.
The Vellore aunt felt guilty that she could not afford to raise her sister's boys, until the Tamil Nadu government announced an assistance of 500,000 rupees to Covid-19 orphans.
"It makes me much more capable of raising the boys and they can grow up with their cousins in a family they already know," she said.
However, it's yet unclear how the schemes will reach the children.
"If the child doesn't have a bank account or an ID, or even the parent's death certificate, who will facilitate it? Who will process the parent's health insurance? In case the relatives live abroad or in another city, can the process of assigning kinship be sped up?" asked Ms Ali.
Announcements of free education for children who lost parents to Covid-19 have also not been followed up with memos to private schools to waive the fees.
As child welfare agencies design the road map, Ms Ali added: "We cannot expect a child to submit a document every month to get the sponsorship. We must be conscious of children's dignity and not go the charity way."