Nitish Kumar will never forget the day he and his sisters buried their dead mother in the backyard.
At just 32 years old, Priyanka Devi had died from Covid on May 3. Neighbors and relatives refused to help with his burial, and all of the family’s money had gone toward hospital fees.
The coronavirus pandemic had struck his family, who live in the small town of Madhulata, in the underprivileged Indian state of Bihar, with a tragic double whammy. It was his father, 40-year-old doctor Birendra Mehta, who had developed the first symptoms of Covid-19 in the last week of April. Soon after, his mother, Priyanka Devi, 32, also fell ill. Both were transferred to a private hospital they could barely afford, but on May 3 Mehta died of coronavirus. With the small amount of money the family had left, a cremation was arranged for their last rites.
But with nothing else to pay for her treatment, Devi was released from the private hospital and sent home. On May 7, she too died. With the stigma of Covid in the local community, no neighbors or relatives reached out to help orphaned children perform their last rites. Instead, Kumar, Soni Kumari, 16, and Chandani Kumari, 12, were found orphans and had to handle their mother’s corpse alone.
The devastating second wave of Covid that hit India in April, one of the worst experienced by any nation, may have finally subsided, but trauma and death have remained in its wake. There was hardly a family left in India unaffected by the virus, and with Covid hitting adults far worse than children, thousands of people have been orphaned in recent weeks.
According to a report by the National Commission for the Protection of Children’s Rights (NCPCR), at least 1,742 children have lost their parents to Covid, while 7,464 have lost a parent. But given that the official number of coronavirus victims of over 340,000 is considered a very low count, it is highly likely that the number of Covid orphans is much higher than the records will show.
For Kumar and his sisters, who were still mourning their father, the day they lost their mother was the darkest of their lives. She carried her mother’s body to the backyard of her house and dug the grave while Soni, the older sister, dressed in a personal protective suit and buried the body as best she could.
At the age of 14, Kumar is now the sole breadwinner in the family and feared that he would have to drop out of school to earn money and feed his sisters. “He wanted to be a doctor,” Kumar said. “But my first priority now is organizing food for my sisters instead of continuing my studies. Right now, we are surviving on relief materials donated by social workers, but they won’t be available all the time. I will have to work. With his death, my dream was also buried. “
Her sister Soni spoke of her fears for the future without her parents. “We have no sources of income,” he said. “We will have to do something to stay alive.”
In another case that horrified the country, six-year-old twins Tripti and Pari were found asleep next to their mother who had died of Covid, without knowing that she was dead.
Officials and NGOs have expressed concern that these children left without parents now face the dual threat of neglect and vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking.
“In this pandemic situation, orphaned children are the most vulnerable to human traffickers. Especially children from poor, lower caste communities have the best chance of falling into the trap of traffickers, ”said Suresh Kumar, a member of the Human Liberty Network, a group of non-profit organizations working to stop trafficking in children.
Its volunteers also closely monitor children’s movements at bus stops and train stations to prevent them from falling into the clutches of traffickers.
Children orphaned by Covid are being placed in state homes, but in the meantime, illegal appeals for the adoption of Covid orphans, often babies, have also become rampant on social media, leading to protection organizations. child to put out newspaper ads warning people not to respond and report posts instead. The NCPCR said it had also created a web portal where all cases of Covid orphans and children abandoned during the pandemic in India must be uploaded to prevent children from being lost.
Yet many children orphaned by the pandemic are now struggling to survive. Shatrughn Kumar, 12, from Dumaria village in Bihar, had been raised by his single mother after his father’s death. But he died last month after showing symptoms of Covid, leaving Kumar the only person who cared for his eight-year-old brother.
“I work on a construction site for a living, but the income is very low,” said Shatrughn. He had already been rescued from child exploitation in a bracelet factory in Rajasthan, places known for their brutal working conditions, terrible wages and rampant use of child labor, a couple of years ago. But with his mother missing, 12-year-old Shatrughn said his only option for survival was to return to the factory.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism