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The children left behind by covid-19

As our social media feeds remain flooded with posts related to ‘covid orphan’ and ‘call to adopt’, India really needs to wake up to how the young ones will deal with grief

Children can sense the changes around them, so it's best to communicate openly about the virus and its impact
Children can sense the changes around them, so it's best to communicate openly about the virus and its impact (Getty Images)

R has been promised that his parents will be home soon.

A week ago, the six-year-old was alone at home—a two-room apartment in Delhi—when a doctor at a covid-19 hospital declared his mother dead. A few rooms away, his father was in the ICU; he died the next day. An uncle, quarantined at his west Delhi home, plans to visit R once he recovers fully. Till then, neighbours are taking care of the boy. Relatives spread across the country call on the landline almost every hour, comforting him, assuring him “they will be back soon”.

“What else we can say to him?” the uncle tells me on the phone. “I can’t tell him the truth. There’s nobody to take care of him. The grandparents are not alive. They (the parents) didn’t have many friends. I will bring him home…but telling the truth now….”

Over the past year, covid-19 has killed more than 250,000 in India—mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, adults who have left holes in families and children grieving. A recent surge in such deaths has made “covidorphan” a hashtag that was trending on social media. Despite Union ministers like Smriti Irani and government officials reiterating on social media that citizens are legally required to inform the police, the child welfare committee or the child helpline 1098 if they come to know of a “covidorphan”, people are still sharing unverified numbers to reach out to if one encounters a child in need. Footballer Sunil Chhetri, for instance, shared two numbers. One belonged to an old-age home—the person who answered the phone told me: “Please call 1098. We don’t take care of children.” The other number went unanswered.

Requests to adopt “covidorphan”—though clearly against the law—are also being circulated via WhatsApp forwards, sometimes with photographs and/or addresses of the children. This is illegal.

There’s no official estimate of the number of “covidorphans”. Many more children are likely to lose parents in the weeks to come. Given the current trajectory, a team at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science has predicted about 404,000 deaths by 11 June. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has estimated 1,018,879 deaths in India by the end of July.

Yet, amidst the retweets and reposts, what is not getting enough attention is the emotional health of children whose parents are either in hospital, fighting the virus, or have lost the battle. “You have to understand that lack of physical interaction and activities were already causing severe emotional distress and anxiety among children. Now they have to deal with the loss of a parent,” says Hirak Patel, counselling psychologist at Fortis Hospital in Mulund, Mumbai. “It’s more difficult at a younger age when kids are still processing their feelings and thoughts. Without proper long-term therapy and family support, it can be very difficult to deal with grief. We need to talk more and we need to tell the truth, even if it has to do with death.”

The cost of lies

The truth is not our go-to when communicating news as bad as the death of a parent. They are kids, they won’t understand, we tell ourselves. Denial is the preferred route in India, where loss and grief are rarely discussed. But, as Patel says, given the way covid-19 is ripping through the country, if we don’t talk openly and honestly with children, we could have a generation that never gets closure.

A March 2020 study in The Lancet says children as young as two years are aware of the changes around them, which makes it all the more important to have honest and effective communication between them and adults about the pandemic, including death and dying. “Listening to what children believe about covid-19 transmission is essential; providing children with an accurate explanation that is meaningful to them will ensure that they do not feel unnecessarily frightened or guilty,” the study notes. Otherwise, it adds, it can have a long-term impact on the child’s mental health.

The pandemic has been a nightmare for children, especially girls. Authorities say the children’s helpline reported a 17% rise in distress calls related to the early marriage of girls in June-July 2020, compared to a year earlier. There are reports of an increase in cases of incest and growing fears of trafficking.

A report by the child rights organisation Protsahan India Foundation, based on a May-July 2020 survey, found that 13% of adolescent girls in parts of north India experienced sexual abuse during the pandemic. Seventeen per cent reported knowing a child being married in a neighbourhood/family. More than half mentioned having faced gender-based discrimination and 88% said their parents had started fighting more during the lockdown, making them feel “suffocated” at home. The findings were based on the responses of 416 girls in the 11-18 age group from marginalised communities in Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. “We have also found cases of incest (in Delhi),” Protsahan India Foundation’s founder-director, Sonal Kapoor, says. “There’s a case where our front-line workers found a father abusing three minor sisters during the lockdown. There are cases of transactional sex with children, with the offer of food in return. Dangers for already vulnerable children have increased manifold, especially with photos and addresses of children orphaned being floated via WhatsApp; we know how child traffickers become more active during disasters.”

Meenu Mehta, chairperson of the child welfare committee (CWC), west Delhi, too believes there could be a rise in trafficking. “In the past three weeks, no child has been reported as orphaned in our district despite so many messages being shared on WhatsApp. Even I am getting such messages. Where are these children going?” To address the issue of children affected by covid-19, Delhi has set up district task forces that include members of the police and that district’s CWC. It is also raising awareness about Childline, the helpline, through newspapers and flashing the number 1098 in hospitals across the country more rigorously.

In badly hit Delhi, the number of cases of children in need of care and protection received in all CWCs in January-March was 2,028. Between 1 April-10 May, the figure was 550. The data on whether cases are related to covid-19 is in the process of being collated. “Our Childline is not at all stressed, as many people believe. The number of calls (during the second wave) is almost the same as before and we are responding to each one of them,” says Rashmi Singh, special secretary, director, social welfare and director of women and child development department, Delhi government. “I would like to encourage and remind people that 1098 is the only number to call for any kind of child services and Cara (Central Adoption Resource Authority) for adoption,” she says, adding: “Mental health of children is one of our biggest worries right now. That’s why we have now joined hands with more NGOs and mental health practitioners.”

We should talk more often

It should be. Therapy and trauma counselling are still not encouraged much in India, as Kapoor points out. “With the loss of parents, for a child an emotional home is lost. How will children heal this trauma if they don’t express their feelings?”

It was this thought of what a “covidorphan” might be going through emotionally that led Delhi’s Arjita Saxena to tweet last week that she wanted to adopt a child. She had lost her mother to covid-19 a day earlier. “When I was looking for a bed for my mother, I met a father who was constantly telling his small daughter, ‘Mamma will come late.’ I later asked him where she was and he said she had died early that morning. I can’t forget that,” says Saxena, who didn’t know about 1098 or Cara till we spoke. “I know it (adopting) will be difficult (financially). I already have two kids. But the situation on the ground is so pathetic that I think more people should come forward to adopt.”

That’s not the best idea, says Kapoor. “It’s always better to practise kinship care (the care of children by caring kin) since the trust is already established,” she says. “Institutionalisation (referring children to shelter homes run by government or NGOs) should be the last resort since it doesn’t offer the promise of cousins or someone the child can grow up calling their own. Also, there is not enough trauma-informed counselling to help a child deal with the grief of losing a parent.”

Thinking ahead

Realising the need to care for children’s mental health, some platforms offering free online activities have been set up to engage youngsters who are alone at home because their parents are in hospital or quarantining.

Chennai’s Akhila Krishnamurthy has, for instance, started #allweneedisempathy, a platform that offers online music, dance, craft and basic cooking sessions for children with the help of volunteers. “Parents can reach out to us, guardians can reach out to us. It’s open to all,” says Krishnamurthy, founder of the boutique arts management company Aalaap. “But please don’t think of it as a summer camp.”

The idea for the initiative came on 1 May when a friend’s sister and her husband were in the ICU, leaving their six-year-old daughter alone at home with the domestic helper. Krishnamurthy couldn’t stop thinking about “what the child must be going through”. Within two days, #allweneedisempathy was born. All her 26 volunteers are people she has known for years. “We are dealing with children so I need to have people I can trust. The length and nature of sessions are decided based on the child’s interest and need. I hope this initiative becomes useless soon because it would mean covid is gone.”

While Krishnamurthy’s platform is open to children across the country, Vidya Thathamangalam is focusing on her hometown Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, through the Bring A Smile initiative, which follows the same model as #allweneedisempathy. The only difference is that Thathamangalam is based in Oakville, Canada. “We started it on 2 May and within a day we were approached by three families,” says Thathamangalam, who left Coimbatore for Canada over two decades ago.

At present, they work with six children. Her volunteers are mostly friends and family spread across the US and India. “I don’t know how this project will turn out but we really need to talk about kids’ emotional and mental needs and I feel art offers some sort of comfort.”

Bindu Ramkumar is one of the parents who reached out to Thathamangalam after her son, 11, and she tested positive. “As soon as I saw the reports, the first thing I told my husband was, ‘If there’s an oxygen crisis, save our son.’ We couldn’t stop crying but my son seemed calm. I didn’t know what was going on in his head so I decided to enrol him for art,” she says. Her son seems to be enjoying the art and storytelling classes and has made new friends—something he hadn’t done for a year. She says, “He seems happy but I don’t know... I can’t think straight but I ensure we tell him everything as truthfully as possible.”

That’s the advice Patel has for parents and family members: Keep communicating with the child. “You need to remind them that they can trust you and share whatever they are thinking. Even in matters of death, you need to find ways to tell them. It’s difficult, yes, but parents should be open about concerns. Children can sense a tense home atmosphere. Best to communicate it to them.”

For instance, when Whitefield Rising, a collective of resident associations in Bengaluru, started getting more distress calls about children, it issued an advisory that parents must plan for who would take care of their child if they fell ill. “We have asked people to plan. Note down all the information a caretaker may need about the child—allergies, medication, likes/dislikes, school information. Have a chat with the child about the plan,” says member Zibi Jamal. “It’s always better to be truthful with kids because by lying we give a false hope.”

Six-year-old R, meanwhile, is waiting for his parents to return.

In case help is needed for a child in distress, call 1098. There’s no other number.

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