08:27 GMT20 June 2021
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    In mid-April, when the number of coronavirus cases began escalating again in India, thousands of COVID patients lost their lives fighting the dearth of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medications. The large number of deaths due to coronavirus is also leaving behind a string of orphaned children below the age of 15.

    "The kids haven't stopped crying, waiting for their parents. Their extended families are telling them, 'don't worry your papa and mummy will come back'. These children need to be told their parents won't show up", Sonal Kapoor Singh, the CEO of a Delhi-based kids welfare NGO said concerning the situation of thousands of COVID-orphaned Indian children.

    These children are not only vulnerable to the difficulties of growing up without their parents to look after them, but are also susceptible to the risks of being pushed into child labour, trafficked into the flesh market, or being molested and abused by their caretakers.

    Vaanyi, a 19-year-old domestic helper living in the Delhi slum Uttam Nagar recently lost her husband to COVID. The mother of three also lost her job because several housing societies in Delhi have restricted the entry of housemaids for the time being to cut off any chances of COVID spreading in communities. Vaanyi does not want her kids to roam the streets, asking strangers for money.

    "COVID has destroyed everything for us. After losing my husband, there is no one left to feed the family. The landlord comes every day to ask for rent. How do I pay his rent when I can't even provide two meals to my children? I feel helpless. I don't want to push my children into begging", Vaanyi says.

    Sonal Kapoor Singh, the CEO of the child welfare NGO "Protsahan" told Sputnik that their team is working on more than 650 cases, including those of extremely marginalised children who have lost either one or both of their parents or are facing severe children's rights violations like transactional sex and child labour.

    "We're looking at a generation of children in extreme distress and facing severe trauma who will grow up to be broken adults. Each day my team and I come back, back breaking bone tired. Sometimes we're able to save children, sometimes absolutely not. Cases of incest where fathers or other male relatives rape their own daughters because their wives have COVID and are struck to bed shocks me the most".

    Singh noted that while putting these orphaned kids in institutional homes is an option, children's rights organisations often explore the possibility of placing these kids with their extended families like grandparents or aunts and uncles. While kids from middle class and wealthy families in India more often than not get the care and support they need from relatives, children left orphaned in the slums and poverty-ridden areas of India are struggling with painful hunger and family negligence.

    ​Several families left with the orphaned kids of their dead relatives are having to move out of their small residences in big cities and go back to their small towns so that they can cut down on rent and financially manage extra mouths to feed. In addition, there are piled up bills from the hospitals that the surviving kids from the families of deceased parents have to take care of.

    Bannesh, a 14-year-old boy who lost his father to COVID lives with his mother and two sisters. His mother is a homemaker.

    "After my father's death, we are left with a hospital bill of INR 150,000 ($2,000 approx) and no earning member in the family. My widowed mother says she can no longer afford to send me back to school, ever", he told Sputnik.

    In order to understand how these COVID-orphaned kids are being taken care of, Sputnik reached out to the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), a government body that deals with the issue.

    "As soon as we receive information about a child in distress – we involve the district child welfare community members to assess the situation of the child to decide the next line of action. If no extended family member is ready to take in the child – due to financial or health issues – we place the kids in care homes. Food, clothing, education, counselling everything is available in these institutes to help the child grow normally. In other cases, if the child is placed in the custody of family members then the district child welfare community tracks the child's growth at regular intervals", Anurag Kundu, the ‎chairperson of the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) with the ‎government of Delhi told Sputnik.

    Kundu also noted that child welfare authorities will be reaching out to track if kids with special needs and with parents in jail, enrolled in Delhi schools are doing alright or not.

    Special "Urja Desks" have also been set up in local police stations across India to tend to the reports of kids in distress amid this pandemic.

    "Information of orphaned kids received on Urja Desks in local police stations immediately results in tracing the child/children and if nobody is around to help them for the time being, these kids can be brought to specially set up one-stop centres so that they can be protected from child traffickers and perverts. The district collectors will be in touch with district child welfare authorities to further assist these kids in distress", Sanjeevani Rajput, a senior police officer with the Madhya Pradesh Police told Sputnik.

    In recent days, several messages asking people to foster COVID orphaned kids have surfaced on social media in India. 

    ​All of the nation's authorities, including Smriti Irani, the head of Women and Child Development in India have also noted that messages circulating on social media with information on kids needing somebody to foster them must be brought to the government's attention.

    Indian states like Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are rolling out scholarships and monthly pension schemes for COVID-orphaned kids to support them in some way until a better and nationally inclusive scheme for these kids is enacted.

    "Unfair" would be an understatement if the fates of those kids who have lost one or both of their parents to the deadly coronavirus was to be described in one word. Not only will the horrific memories of these rough COVID times linger long after the pandemic is over, millions of kids will grow up without their parents and testify to the long after effects of this virus that has already killed over 3.2 million people worldwide.

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