Coronavirus India

Orphaned by Covid-19, kids are left in distress

Ms Zoor Barooah, 22, lost both her journalist parents, who died of Covid-19 within a day of each other in Gurgaon.
Ms Zoor Barooah, 22, lost both her journalist parents, who died of Covid-19 within a day of each other in Gurgaon.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZOOR BAROOAH

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

"A four-year-old possibly asymptomatic child (orphaned by Covid-19) needs to be transported to Bangalore today... This person needs to be able to take care of a four-year-old, feed him, maybe change diapers, etc," the sender said.

Noah (name changed) lost his mother, who was a single mum, aged 35, to Covid-19 on April 28 in Mangalore. An uncle and another cousin had also died due 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. Child rights activists say that the infectious virus has made relatives less generous.

"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 the 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 message that went especially viral asked people to call someone named Priyanka if they wanted to help two girls, one just three days old and another six months old, orphaned by Covid-19 to "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 of women and children development in 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, Minister for Women and Child Development, tweeted on May 4.

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 to 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 Child Welfare Committee, 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 inquiry, 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, the authorities place the child in institutionalised care. If relatives approve it, they include the child in the central pool of children approved for adoption.

People who want to adopt children in India can do so only 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 parents affected by Covid-19 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.

One message late last month asked someone to breastfeed a six-month-old child whose mother had died of Covid-19 in Bangalore.

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.

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

"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 and proactively identify "back-up caregivers" who have no co-morbidities or ageing parents - "ideally, people the kids know".

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

Ms Zoor Barooah, 22, whose journalist parents died of Covid-19 within a day of each other in Gurgaon, said: "Everywhere I see, close family is losing someone. It seems like a never-ending process."

Rohini Mohan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2021, with the headline 'Orphaned by Covid-19, kids are left in distress'. Subscribe