Over the past few weeks, as the second wave of COVID-19 unleashed an unimaginable scenario of families being torn asunder by death, suffering and grief, There were heart-rending stories about the ‘#COVIDOrphans’ in print, broadcast and social media platforms. There were images, too, of children standing next to the bodies of their parents who had succumbed to the virus.
This sudden attention on children orphaned by COVID-19 stemmed from the messages that started trending on social media sites about a month ago, both offering and seeking the adoption of #COVIDOrphans. In fact, this was the first time one heard this term being used.
Alerted to the fact that such messages could lead to illegal adoptions and even trafficking of children, child rights activists raised an alarm. The Ministry of Women and Child, Government of India and the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights immediately put out orders and advisories stating that adopting children without going through the proper procedure is illegal – the procedure needs to be followed.
On June 8, 2021, the Supreme Court of India directed state governments and union territories to act against those NGOs which are found to be indulging in illegal adoption.
But the narrative of #COVID Orphans continues unabated. The term ‘Covid orphans’ may owe its existence to the hashtag culture and the media’s tendency for ‘catchy’ descriptions, but the question is, will these children be branded thus for the rest of their lives, held to ransom by a trending hashtag? It is almost like a stigma the children will have to carry throughout their lives.
While the media is agog with stories of #COVIDOrphans, the Central and state governments have announced several relief measures. Even the prime minister has announced support from his PM Cares Fund.
Timeline of response: from the ministry and NCPCR to the apex court
Taking forward its concern regarding the children, on May 25, 2021, the Union minister for women and child development, Smriti Irani tweeted that the Government of India was committed to protecting children who had lost their parents during the pandemic and that according to the reports provided by state governments and UTs for the period between April to May 25, there are 577 such children.
The Ministry announced that a sum of Rs 10 lakh from the existing Integrated Child Protection Scheme(ICPS) in every district would be allocated for these children. The district magistrates would be directed to use the money to ensure support for the families providing care to children who are orphaned.
Other organisations got activated as well. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) urged social media users to desist from sharing photographs and contact details of children in distress online and advised them to contact Childline.
Simultaneously, as per its affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court of India, the NCPCR launched a portal, Bal Swaraj, to provide accurate national figures. According to the affidavit submitted by it to the Supreme Court on June 6, 2021, as per the latest data received on this portal for the period between April 1, 2021, and June 5, 2021, 3,621 children were orphaned, 26,176 children lost one parent and 274 children had been abandoned.
In fact, on May 28, the Supreme Court, which had been hearing a case on children in child care homes during the pandemic for over a year, also decided to take note of an application filed by the amicus curiae, which highlighted the serious issue of children orphaned during the pandemic and the urgent need to provide them food, ration, shelter and clothing.
The apex court directed the district authorities under the Juvenile Justice Act to immediately upload the relevant information on the children orphaned during the pandemic since March 2020 on the national portal Bal Swaraj. Since then, the Supreme Court has been raising this issue in its orders.
Show of concern – from PM Cares to state governments
On May 29, the prime minister announced relief measures for children orphaned during the pandemic from the PM Cares Fund, stating that “the measures being announced have only been possible due to the generous contributions to the PM Cares Fund which will support India’s fight against COVID-19.”
According to the announcement, the children would be entitled to admission in reputed government-run schools such as the Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodaya School and Sainik School, among others, with the Fund providing support for uniforms, textbooks and notebooks. Significantly, the relief to be provided from the PM Cares Fund leaves out the important day-to-day living expenses or personal requirements of the child!
The relief measures include a corpus of Rs 10 lakh allocated per child, to be utilised after the child attains 18 years of age, to pursue higher education and “to give a monthly financial support/ stipend from 18 years of age, for the next five years to take care of his or her personal requirements during the period of higher education and on reaching the age of 23 years, he or she will get the corpus amount as one lump-sum for personal and professional use.”
These relief measures give the impression that the solution is so easy and doable. Moreover, since they are based on generous contributions to the PM Cares Fund, everyone has played his or her part in the crisis!
Forget the fact that the entire health system has failed the people, in the bargain creating a category of vulnerable children, namely ‘#COVIDOrphans’, whom the PM Cares Fund now promises to support.
Various state governments have announced their relief measures for children orphaned during the pandemic. The Maharashtra government has said that fixed deposits of Rs 5 lakh will be made in the name of children who have lost one or both parents to COVID-19. They will also get a monthly allowance of Rs 1,125. Punjab has announced that it will provide Rs 1,500 per month as social security pension and free education up to graduation to all those children orphaned in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rajasthan government has promised relief to the orphans who will be identified through nodal officers. And Karnataka has announced a special Bal Seva scheme under which Rs 3,500 per month will be given to guardians/ caretakers of such children. Children below 10 years old, who do not have guardians, will be put under registered childcare institutions and admitted to model residential schools, and children who have completed Class 10, will get a free laptop or a tablet. For women who have completed 21 years, Rs 1 lakh will be provided for their marriage expenses, higher education or self-employment.
The relief measures sound good, but how sound are they?
As the announcements on relief measures for children orphaned in the pandemic come thick and fast, there is a need to examine them with a fine-tooth comb. There are two separate but inter-related issues that need to be addressed:
- Is the relief that is being promised to #COVIDOrphans at all implementable?
- Is this the correct way to address the issue of children who are affected by the pandemic?
Regarding the first issue, the benefits promised to those children who have lost their parents is incumbent on their being able to prove that their parents died of COVID-19. We now know that thousands of people died without being tested for COVID-19. Their symptoms were that of COVID-19 but there is no record to prove it.
All those bodies floating in the Ganga or buried in the sands may prove death and distress, but not its cause for the simple reason that they may not have been registered as COVID deaths. Will their children be entitled to relief benefits?
There are news reports stating that in such cases the children are being told they are not entitled to the benefits. Any relief measure that requires documentary proof in a country like India is designed to fail those it is meant for.
Given the capacities of the juvenile justice systems and the various institutions under it, and the lack of support from the government, the question is whether the manner in which children orphaned during the pandemic are treated will be in their best interest.
For instance, The Indian Express (June 8, 2021) reported the case of Rani who was looking after the children of her friend Sujita, who died of COVID-19: “With children orphaned in the second wave of Covid-19 gaining national attention, Sujita’s children appeared on the radar of the district authorities. Rani was directed to produce them before the district’s child welfare committee (CWC). To her horror, the children were sent to the local shelter home on the grounds that Rani is unable to provide for them. Since then, she has been knocking on every door she can in the hope of getting them back.”
It is a long-drawn out process – the children will have to be produced before Child Welfare Committees, which will then declare them Children in Need of Care and Protection and decide what support they need and who they must stay with. There has to be a more non-intimidating way of formalising their absorption into their extended families (in several cases the extended families have already embraced the children wholeheartedly).
Beyond these relief measures, the reality of the state’s narrowing concerns
The second issue is more fundamental – it is about the overall indifference of the state towards focusing on the condition of all children during the pandemic. The above stated measures to alleviate the difficulties of children orphaned during the pandemic are indeed welcome, but the focus of governments (at the Centre and states) only on some children, namely orphaned children, indicates, by implication, a narrowing of concerns – it indicates an abandonment of millions of other affected children from the radar of state services.
For more than a year – from the time COVID-19 first changed the architecture of our lives drastically – there have been reports on how, due to the closure of schools, absence of the midday meal programme and any protective measures, children – boys and girls – have been pushed as child labour – at rice, wheat, cotton and vegetable farms, at brick kilns and construction sites, and even as migrant child labour in sweatshops.
According to a survey conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) in 24 districts of Tamil Nadu, titled ‘Lost Gains – COVID-19, child labour among vulnerable communities has increased by nearly 280% in the state compared to the pre-COVID-19 situation. If this is happening in a relatively more developed state such as Tamil Nadu, what would the situation be in the rest of the country, especially in the poorer states that have always struggled to protect their children.
A Quint report points to yet another dimension of the socio-economic crisis caused by the march of COVID-19 since March 2020, namely that underage girls are being forced into marriage.
That is not all – stories of violence and sexual abuse have been pouring in since the first nationwide lockdown last year. The Union government as well as the NCPCR have also taken note of the apprehensions of a spike in child trafficking.
Our own experiences as activists – supporting families with relief and rations during the pandemic – and that of others like us engaged in similar relief work tell us that because of the rising economic distress and lack of state support, families are unable to feed their children. There is every reason to fear a rise in malnutrition and hunger.
While children with mental health problems are crying out for help, there are not enough mental health professionals to meet their needs. Epidemiologists have already warned us that the next wave of COVID will target children. Why is it that there have not been any official policy announcements on what adds up to such a large-scale violation of children’s rights?
By drawing attention only to ‘Covid Orphans’, the state obligation to render justice to all children affected by the pandemic has been minimised. All the gains made in vital areas over the decades – protection against child labour, the right to education, food security – are on the verge of being lost today. The children have been let down by the very state which is their parens patriae (state as the parent of the citizen). In social media parlance, in addition to being ‘#COVIDOrphans’, they have become ‘#StateOrphans’ as well.
It was left to the Supreme Court of India to draw attention, during its hearing on June 7, to issues which require immediate attention, such as the identification of the children, immediate relief to affected children, and education of the child.
The need of the hour is for the state to identify all children living in various circumstances, who have been rendered vulnerable due to the impact of COVID-19, and extend relief measures and support to them. That way, no child will have to live with the tag of being a ‘#COVIDOrphan’ for the rest of her life, with the added burden of having to constantly prove this status to get state benefits.
Governments in general, more often than not, look for populist and reductionist solutions for complex social problems – a catchy slogan, a catchy image with the power of recall at the voting booth. In this case, the painful imprint of the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of children has been reduced to one single hashtag – ‘#COVIDOrphans’. The logic is simple – go for the lowest hanging fruit that will garner popular attention and make those in power look good, that is, concerned and attentive. Therein lies the problem.
Shantha Sinha is a former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Enakshi Ganguly is co-founder and former co-director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.