Vulnerable, scared, grief-stricken: How govts can support children who’ve lost parents to Covid

Besides empathy and kindness, short, medium and long term solutions are needed for the care and protection of young ones affected by the pandemic.

Children are vulnerable during disasters. Their safety, health, holistic development, and even their very futures are at risk. Many children are in danger of being trafficked or forced into child labour; teenage girls are at risk of being pushed into child marriage. When families slip into poverty, children may suffer exclusion, marginalisation, abuse, and even violence.

The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic saw large numbers of children being cut off from formal education. With schools closed and the lack of access to devices, connectivity and data, there was a disruption in their learning.

But there were ways to approach this problem. Last year, Karnataka came up with a set of light-touch daily activities on YouTube and television to keep children engaged and stimulated. Neighbourhood learning centres were set up and guided through physical visits by school teachers. The state’s 5,600-plus rural libraries were revitalised, with separate children’s sections, bright murals, and new furniture. All rural children became eligible for free library cards. Reading and talking about books became a way for children, teachers, and families to connect with learning. Karnataka’s rural and urban local bodies also took up a house-to-house child survey of children up to the age of 18 to identify those not enrolled in anganwadi, school or junior college.

The second wave has hit children even harder. Within weeks, we became painfully aware of new kinds of distress. The teenage boy who wanted to speak on the phone to his father in the Covid ICU. The 12-year-old going from hospital to hospital with his Covid-positive mother, in search of a hospital bed for her. Children whose parents had both died, and who were now in the care of their aged grandparents. The tired daily-wage worker who, on her way back from the worksite, lay her head in her daughter’s lap to rest; in the morning, the child realised her mother had died.

Short, medium and long-term measures are needed, along with empathy and kindness, for the care and protection of children affected or infected by Covid. Separate Covid isolation centres, where a parent may stay with the young child, are needed; as are separate quarantine centres, with trained child protection staff, to shelter children while their parents or guardians recover.

Rather than institutional stay for longer periods, it is better for the child to be in kinship care with extended family. In this, the wishes of the child, and the ability of the family members to care for them, should be part of the decision of the Child Welfare Committee. Fake messages about adopting “Covid orphans” should be firmly dealt with. Foster care and adoption of children who have lost parents to Covid should take place only through the legal process.

There is concern about a possible third wave of Covid. We must plan for the eventuality, and for the systematic physical triaging for children, and their isolation for treatment. Children with mild-to-moderate cases of Covid infection should be allowed to stay at home, with careful monitoring of their condition. For children who need hospitalisation, a parent or guardian must be permitted to be with them. Child protection staff must be positioned at hospitals to help with children who are in the care of child services.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the second wave, communities will need support to process their grief and recover from the loss of lives. Grief and trauma counsellors will need to be prepared for this responsibility. Master trainers can be identified and trained in districts, selected from high school teachers, nurses, mental health counsellors, and anganwadi supervisors. Children will need emotional support to speak about their loss. Teenagers who have watched their parents struggle, or lost family members, will tend to suppress their feelings and may try to respond with fortitude and resilience in order to care for siblings. They should be supported to process their grief.

Commendably, many forms of support have been announced, by the Union government and various state governments, for children who have lost parents to Covid-19. Free education in good schools; healthcare; monthly allowance; a mentorship programme. A fixed amount which can be given to them when they become adults, which will help them to get a start in life. These are important measures that will protect children who have lost their parents to Covid.

We should also not lose sight of the way in which the pandemic has impacted children in general. Meal supplementation through anganwadis and schools, growth monitoring of young children and counselling of pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should continue.

In schools, when they can reopen safely, there should be a focus not on learning loss or deficits, but on what children have gained in these few months. Children have grown many times over in emotional strength, maturity, and resilience as they have watched their families struggle to cope during the pandemic. They should be encouraged to share and reflect on this learning. This is the real post-pandemic curriculum.

This is also the time to invest in infrastructure for children’s development: The construction and renovation of anganwadis, schools, rural libraries, primary health centres and subcentres. Ceiling fans, ventilation, child-friendly renovations, and a fresh coat of paint. Benches for schools, so that children don’t have to sit on the floor to study. Drinking water, functional toilets, nutrition gardens with fruit trees where the birds can sing.

For, one day, the pandemic will end, the children will return, and their laughter will ring through our anganwadis and schoolyards once again. We should be ready to welcome them back.

The writer is in the IAS. These are her personal views.

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