Covid19 Catastrophe: Challenges of Swelling Widows and Orphans

Mohammed Sabith, Research Associate, EIF

Covid19, one of the most devastating pandemics in the history that has so far killed more than 38,00,000people, has created several orphans and widows across the world.

In India, thousands of children have been orphaned by the pandemic, and many more lost one parent. While some of these children are being adopted and some have been offered shelters by relatives, many of them continue to suffer – both financially and emotionally. There are also fears that these children may be exploited, including sexually.

The issue of “Covid orphans and widows” is not limited to any particular state or group of states. Rather, it has become a national issue with almost every state having its own number of children and women who are orphaned or widowed by Covid19. “Covid has devastated families across India, orphaning many children,” said a recent report in BBC.

Disturbing numbers

India’s Covid19 numbers are disturbing. As on June 18, 2021, the country’s Covid19 death toll is 3,83,490. The country still has more than a million active Covid19 patients.

Disturbingly, the pandemic has caused more than 30,000 children losing either one or both of their parents, or having been abandoned, according to official data available with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Of these children, 26,176 have lost a parent, 3,621 have lost both parents, and 274 have been abandoned. The data shows the picture between April 2020 and June 2021.

Irfan, a community volunteer from Bengaluru, said he knows many families where the children are suffering after losing their parents due to the pandemic. He said the state of the dependents of young men Mohammed Muzaffar Hussain (35) and Zabiullah (33) is examples, after them succumbing to the pandemic. While Hussain is married and has two young daughters, Zabiullah has a widowed sister and her family as well to support besides his wife and two young daughters.

According to official data available till early June, Maharashtra has been affected worse, with 7,084 children being orphaned, abandoned or have lost a parent. Volunteers working on the ground in the state say they see several families struggling after the pandemic killed the breadwinner of the family.

The other states where children are most affected include Uttar Pradesh (3,172), Rajasthan (2,482), Haryana (2,438), Madhya Pradesh (2,243), Andhra Pradesh (2,089), Kerala (2,002), Bihar (1,634) and Odisha (1,073).

The NCPCR data further revealed that there are 15,620 boys and 14,447 girls among the affected. The age group that counts a significant number of these children is 8-13. Nearly 12,000 children come under this category.

A separate report says 154 children in Andhra and 143 in Telangana have lost both parents due to the pandemic. Additionally, more than 1,000 children in each of these two states lost one of their parents due to Covid19. The state governments have initiated some measures to address the issues of these children.

In Kerala, the state Women and Child Development Department has identified 42 children who have lost both their parents due to the pandemic, till early June 2021. Additionally, there are about 1,400 children in the state who have lost at least one parent. The state government announced a ‘one-time’ financial support of three lakh rupees to the children orphaned by the pandemic. The government has also announced a monthly financial assistance of Rs. 2,000 to the children until they reach the age of 18, besides free education until graduation. However, it’s not clear whether these benefits would be there for those kids who lost one parent.

In Uttar Pradesh, more than 1,000 Covid orphans have been identified, even as reports reveal the plight of such children in the state. In Odisha, the chief minister Naveen Patnaik has asked his officials to identify both women, whose husbands succumbed to the pandemic, and children, who lost parents due to the disease, and bring them under cover of social welfare schemes in the state.

There are two important concerns regarding India’s ‘Covid19 orphans and widows.’ One is the absence of the actual death toll data. The other concern is regarding the capacity of the official machinery to singlehandedly manage a crisis like the current one. To address the multifaceted challenges posed by the pandemic, the governments need active engagement and support of community organisations and volunteers.

Reports suggest that India’s Covid19 death toll is incorrect, and the deaths are intentionally undercounted. The actual number could be much bigger – perhaps more than a million – than what we are informed officially, they say. Several states, like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, have faced criticism for undercounting the deaths. According to an NDTV report, 4.8 lakh unexplained excess deaths were reported in five states alone (Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Delhi) during the pandemic.

There are allegations that the governments are intentionally undercounting the Covid deaths. The critics point out multiple reasons for this: one is to hide the failure of the government in controlling the pandemic; and another is to reduce the number of beneficiaries for any future compensation schemes.

The governments undercount the Covid deaths because they fear that higher mortality rate may be used by the opposition parties and independent media to further criticise their handling of the pandemic.

Besides, more deaths mean there would be more families to support. So, if the government is compelled to initiate any welfare scheme for the families of Covid victims, it will have to consider more families. The government itself admitted that it is impossible to issue a decent compensation (ex-gratia) to the families of everyone died due to Covid19, because of the huge death toll of the pandemic.

“Utilisation of scarce resources for giving ex-gratia, may have unfortunate consequences of affecting the pandemic response and health expenditure in other aspects and hence cause more damage than good,” said a recent 183-page affidavit the Centre has submitted before the Supreme Court, on June 19.

The government has told the SC that more than 3.86 lakh people have died due to Covid19 in the country, and if a compensation of Rs 4 lakh is paid to the kin of each, it “may possibly” consume the entire amount of the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF), leaving the states with insufficient funds for handling other issues, like response to the pandemic and disasters like cyclones and floods.

In short, the governments want lesser Covid death toll for a number of reasons, even though the pandemic has already claimed lakhs of lives.

Widespread psychological issues caused by the pandemic also is another fact of importance. A recent study supported by the Department of Collegiate Education, Government of Kerala, reveals that 22.34% of the college students in the state “thought about dying by suicide at least for once” during the pandemic. The study further revealed that nearly 60% of the students have symptoms of depression. A report published in October last year said 173 children died by suicide in the state.

Government interventions

The identification of the children affected by the Covid19 deaths itself started very late and the official mechanism for such identification is not strong in many places. Most of the states even started to realise the seriousness of the issue after the Supreme Court’s intervention in the matter. In late May, the SC directed the state authorities to identify the children orphaned by the pandemic, and provide them with immediate relief.

The Centre only recently announced that it would offer financial assistance and free education to those children who have been orphaned by the pandemic. The financial assistance will reach the beneficiary children only when they become adults.

Even though the scheme – PM CARES For Children – talks about a number of measures to support the children affected by the pandemic, the Centre submitted before the Supreme Court that it still needs more time to work out the modalities for the scheme.

Also, it is not clear if the scheme would include those children, who lost only one parent due to the pandemic, among the beneficiaries. Such children, whether they lost father or mother, also face several issues.

The National Human Rights Commission has intervened in selected cases, and directed the Home Ministry to address the plight of the families of those who died due to Covid19.

According to Anurag Kundu, the chairperson of Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the issues faced by the Covid19 orphans are serious in nature. “In my life I have never heard of so many people die in such a small span of time – they must have left behind so many children who are below the age of 18. It is a national emergency in that sense,” Mr Kundu told BBC recently.

Other threats

The gravity of the issue of the ‘Covid orphans’ led to the spread of illegal adoption of the children who have been orphaned by the pandemic. This eventually led to the intervention of the SC, which ordered to stop such illegal adoptions. The apex court in the country also declared that any public advertisement related to adoption is unlawful.

India’s adoption rates are not good. Number of children adopted in the country is significantly low. Besides, there are risks that the adopted children may be exploited, including sexually.

There are fears that the orphans, who became vulnerable after the loss of their parents due to the pandemic, may be trafficked. There are also reports that children who lost either one or both the parents are being pushed into manual work unfit for them.

Even as we lack an effective, official child protection and care system, child rights advocates ask whether the government initiatives meant for the children affected by the pandemic, would truly reach the true beneficiaries.

And on the issues of the women whose life dramatically changed after losing husband due to the pandemic, the country is yet to start a serious discussion on them. Unlike the early months of the pandemic, the ‘second wave’ of Covid19 claimed several hundred young men in India, leaving their young wives, children and other family members in deep uncertainty. So the government and community organisations should pay attention to the livelihood, welfare and rehabilitation of these young widows as well. There can be some special schemes to ensure that they don’t suffer financially. Corporate groups can also do a lot to address the current crisis. A certain per cent of their CSR funds can be reserved for the welfare of the orphans and widows created by the pandemic.

An immediate, and effective, intervention by both the government and non-government institutions and community organisations are necessary to address the current humanitarian crisis posed by the pandemic. Both the children and young women, who have been either orphaned or widowed by the pandemic, should be actively supported by these institutions and organisations in their education, livelihood, etc. The children affected by the Covid deaths should also be protected from slipping into child labour.