June 5, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
COVID-19 has devastated families across the country, orphaning hundreds of children. Roughly 27% of India’s population is under 14 years of age and there were an estimated 350,000 orphans in institutional care before the pandemic. Minister for Women and Child Welfare Smriti Irani tweeted that COVID-19 had claimed both parents of at least 577 children between April 1 and May 25, 2021, alone. Naturally, experts say, the number for the entire pandemic is much, much higher. As you hear this, officials are struggling to get an exact count of children abandoned, either because their parents are in hospital or have died or because the surviving parent isn’t able to care for them.
Staff of the hundreds of voluntary organisations working across the country tell tales of children who watched helplessly as their parents died, gasping for breath in the absence of hospital beds or ventilators. These orphans are in such a delicate emotional state that often even counselling doesn’t work.
As the fatalities pile up, the prospect of orphaned minors is worrying. UNICEF India chief Yasmin Haque said they “are not only living an emotional tragedy, but they are also at high risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation”.
Their stories have been highlighted in newspapers and on television, and social media is awash with desperate calls for help in the form of money, food and even breast milk for orphaned infants.
There is another worry. There are alarming reports that some COVID orphans are being put up for illegal adoption – on social media, no less. Many of these pleas are well intentioned, but they are completely illegal and extremely irresponsible. “If anyone wishes to adopt a girl, please contact Priyanka,” read one post. Experts say that when photos and locations of the children are shared, traffickers posing as adopters become active.
India’s adoption laws are very strict. Under the law, an orphan must be put in an institution if there are no relatives to look after him or her. Every state has a child protection and welfare commission with district officials identifying children at risk. Those seeking to adopt must register on a national portal, after which stringent checks are conducted. The adoption goes through only after the state’s child welfare committee clears it.
However, adoption rates are low – just 3,351 children were adopted in the year leading up to March 2020, but many thousands were orphaned. In Uttar Pradesh alone, more than 1,000 COVID orphans were identified. By comparison, more than 66,000 were adopted in the US in 2019.
Our overburdened child services could easily misassign a child to a trafficker or an adoption racketeer.
COVID orphans are in great distress – with their primary caregivers gone, they have absolutely no way of sustaining themselves financially. Many have died, are ailing or reduced to selling vegetables or anything else they can on the streets.
It’s a humanitarian crisis and the state and Central governments have announced measures to help. The Centre announced a corpus through which Rs 10 lakh would be set aside for each orphan and paid out as a stipend to them when they turn 18. India also has a dedicated child helpline number, 1098, for emergency messages about children who have lost their families to COVID.
Those working in the development sector are advocating foster care too. This is to ensure that the children can be looked after in homes by families rather than having to stay in overcrowded institutions waiting to be adopted.
While governments are scaling up the effort to care for COVID orphans, much needs to be done. Growing up without a family can be traumatic in the best of times. This, however, is the worst of times.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.