Children as victims of the pandemic

The discriminatory impact of the pandemic is resulting in poverty, rising malnutrition rates and mental trauma among children. Many of them have lost both or one parent in the second wave and there is no clear timeline yet for their vaccination.

Published : Jun 18, 2021 06:00 IST

A health care  worker checks the temperature of  a child during a door-to-door surveillance at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on June 9.

A health care worker checks the temperature of a child during a door-to-door surveillance at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on June 9.

The second wave of coronavirusinfection might be showing signs of receding from parts of India, but there are serious concerns that the third wave might affect children. Maharashtra, Kerala, Telangana and a few other States have started making preparations to handle such an eventuality by setting up more neonatal intensive care units and paediatric wards.

Globally, China, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union are in various stages of rolling out vaccines for those below the age of 18. On June 8, Pfizer announced the launch of a vaccine trial involving children below the age of 12 across selected sites in the U.S., Finland, Poland and Spain. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is already approved for children between the ages of 12 and 15 in some parts of the world. While vaccine trials for children are under way in India, a clear timeline for vaccinating children is yet to be established. While national figures for the number of children infected by coronavirus in the second wave are not available, anecdotal evidence points to a spike in infections among those below 18 years of age this year compared with last year. Fragmented reports from Surat in Gujarat, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra and Telangana suggest that a large number of children were infected during the second wave.

Dr Randeep Guleria, Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, rubbished reports of the possibility of a third wave impacting children. He told the media: “It is a piece of misinformation that subsequent waves of the COVID-19 pandemic will cause severe illness in children. There is no data, either from India or globally, to show that children will be seriously infected in subsequent waves.” He added that 60-70 per cent of children who were admitted to hospitals in the second wave had comorbidities or low immunity. Those who were healthy recovered without the need for hospitalisation.

Also read: COVID-19: Perils of vacuous claims

While only time will tell whether the third wave will affect children or not, there is global consensus that the rapid spread of COVID-19 and measures such as lockdowns taken to fight the infection have disrupted children’s home and school lives like never before and they face an uncertain future. As the pandemic and the lockdown stalled economic activity and pushed more families into poverty, the situation also took a toll on children’s mental health.

Socio-economic travails

According to UNICEF, one in seven children and young people living under stay-at-home policies for most of 2020 were suffering from anxiety, depression and isolation. While the pandemic was hard on children belonging to every socio-economic class, the urban working class had a particularly tough time. With the onset of summer, children living on the streets and making a living by selling toys, balloons and other knick-knacks admitted that they took intoxicants to deal with the tough situation and unbearable heat.

Child reporters with Balaknama newspaper interviewed several children living across slums in Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon to find out how they were coping with the pandemic. Suraj (name changed) told them that the economic situation at home deteriorated after his father lost his livelihood because of the lockdown restrictions. Unable to support the family as he could not make and sell pots, his father began to suffer from anxiety and fell ill. Suraj was forced to work at weddings and parties to pay the house rent and to get treatment for his father. Some children belonging to Kabutar Nat, a nomadic community, started selling raw liquor to make ends meet. Sanjay Gupta of Chetna, an organisation that works with street children, told Frontline that when the lockdown was announced, several migrant families living in Delhi went back to their villages. At the peak of the pandemic when pyres were burning without a pause, people in slums located near crematoria in Delhi began leaving out for fear of catching the virus. Trucks heading towards Uttar Pradesh reportedly charged each family Rs.500 to Rs.800.

Remote learning

Child poverty is expected to increase worldwide with children forced to drop out of schools, undoing years of progress made in the area. Besides, there is also the likelihood of more child marriages, according to UNICEF. More than 168 million schoolchildren globally could not attend classes as schools remained closed for almost a year. At least one in three schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning. In India, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) cancelled both class 10 and class 12 board exams for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Union Minister for Education, approved new guidelines for the development of e-content for children with disabilities.

Also read: Education in the time of pandemic

While students from middle- and high-income families in urban areas benefited from online classes, it created a digital divide. Students from poor backgrounds without access to smartphones, computers or Internet connections lagged behind and were on the verge of dropping out. Only a few State governments announced schemes to circumvent this problem.

Kerala, for instance, said that Internet connectivity and digital devices would be provided to all students irrespective of their financial and geographical barriers to pursue online classes without hassles during the pandemic restrictions. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said needy children would be provided Internet free of cost or at a subsidised rate. Nagaland announced free tablets, preloaded with study material, to all government schoolchildren in classes 8 to 12. In Maharashtra, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) said it would extend a financial assistance of Rs.500 to each student studying in corporation-run schools to get Internet connectivity.

Some States, such as Chhattisgarh, announced the reopening of all private and government schools from June 16. Teaching would, however, be done in the online mode or in mohalla (neighbourhood) classrooms. Despite the ongoing pandemic, Assam decided to hold board exams for classes 10 and 12 even though an online campaign was launched requesting that they be cancelled.

Health and nutrition

According to UNICEF, children of refugees and asylum-seekers were affected in 59 countries owing to border closures amidst rising xenophobia. Efforts to control COVID-19 crippled the work to prevent measles outbreaks—measles campaigns were paused in 26 countries—and malnutrition rates remained alarming in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Also read: Latest NFHS data reveal high levels of anaemia across nation

India contributes substantially to the global burden of mortality and malnutrition among children below five years of age owing to poor access to basic health services and nutrition. According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Save the Children, COVID-19 and its impact on the economy are likely to further disrupt the access to health care and nutrition, especially for vulnerable families. A study called “A Generation at Stake (Protecting India’s Children from the Impact of COVID-19)”, conducted by the NGO last year, found that a significant number of respondents reported loss of income, leading to lack of access to health care facilities, medical supplies, nutritional supplements, food items, masks, sanitisers and menstrual products.

Orphans and adoption

During the second wave, there were several cases of children being left orphaned as their parents succumbed to coronavirus disease. Smriti Irani, Minister for Women and Child Development, tweeted that between April 1 and May 25, at least 577 children lost both their parents. On June 7, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) provided more clarity on the numbers to the Supreme Court. The NCPCR informed the court that around 30,071 children were impacted by the pandemic. Of these, 26,176 children lost a parent, 3,621 were orphaned and 274 abandoned. Maharashtra was the worst affected with 7,084 children impacted in the second wave, followed by 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).

Social media was flooded with appeals and requests to adopt an orphaned child. Many individuals and organisations collected data on such children saying that they wanted to provide assistance to them. But the NCPCR flagged this as a concern before the apex court, stating that these people were violating procedures under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015.

The NCPCR requested that the identity of the child should not be disclosed and no information relating to children should be given to any person, entity or organisation unless there was an order or recommendation to that effect from the Child Welfare Committee. The HAQ Centre for Child’s Rights echoed the NCPCR’s concerns when it said in a statement that requests for disclosing the identity of children in the name of sponsorship, financial support, adoption, and so on, were a matter of concern as they opened the doors for child trafficking and crime. “It is crucial to stop any such practice and report such children only to authorised agencies who can provide them essential supplies, cooked food, and test them for COVID. The agencies will further try to rehabilitate the children within immediate or extended family and will survey the family too and if that is not an option institutionalise them as per the due process,” it said.

Also read: Persons with disabilities face double whammy of inaccessibility and official apathy in the pandemic

The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose heard the submissions in the suo motu case “In Re Contagion of COVID Virus in Children Protection Homes”. The bench directed State governments and Union Territories to take action against NGOs and individuals indulging in illegal adoptions. It asked them to give wide publicity to the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, as well as government schemes for the benefit of the affected children. On May 28, the bench directed the district authorities to upload the information of children who became orphans after March 2020 on the NCPCR portal ‘Bal Swaraj’ and directed them to take steps to attend to the basic needs of such children.

PM-CARES scheme

On May 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced ‘PM-CARES for Children’, a scheme to support children who lost their parents to COVID-19. According to a press note, PM-CARES will contribute through a specially designed scheme to create a corpus of Rs.10 lakh for each child for use when he or she reaches 18 years of age. This corpus will be used to give monthly financial support or stipend from 18 years of age, for the next five years, to take care of his or her personal requirements during the period of higher education. On reaching the age of 23, he or she will get the corpus amount as a lumpsum for personal and professional use. The beneficiaries’ school education will be supported, and they will be assisted in obtaining education loan for professional courses or higher education in India as per the existing education loan norms. The interest on the loan amount will be paid by PM-CARES. As an alternative, scholarship equivalent to tuition fees, course fees for undergraduate or vocational courses as per government norms will be provided to such children under Central or State government schemes. For children who are not eligible under the existing scholarship schemes, PM-CARES will provide an equivalent amount in scholarship. All the beneficiaries will be enrolled under the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY) with a health insurance cover of Rs.5 lakh. PM-CARES will pay the premium for these children until they attain 18 years.

On June 1, Gaurav Agarwal, amicus curiae in the suo motu case in the Supreme Court, informed the court that apart from the press release there was no information on the total number of beneficiaries or the modalities of implementation of the scheme. Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati agreed that the modalities of the PM-CARES scheme needed to be worked out. On June 7, the Central government sought more time from the court to work out the modalities.

On June 8, the apex court bench directed State governments and Union Territories to ensure that there was no break in the education of orphaned children and those who lost one parent to COVID. “If the affected children were studying in a government school they should be permitted to continue their education there. The State governments/UTs should take steps and direct the continuance of those children studying in private schools at least for a period of six months by which time some arrangement could be worked out,” they said. The District Child Protection Units (DCPU) were directed to contact the affected child and their guardian immediately on receipt of information about the death of a parent or parents. Further, the DCPU was asked to ensure that adequate provisions were made for ration, food, medicine, and clothing for the affected child.

Childline service

At a time when existing systems should be strengthened, Smriti Irani announced that the Childline 1098 service would be moved from the Women and Child Welfare Ministry to the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Without going into the details, she said the move was envisaged to preserve “data sensitivity”. It was understood that calls made to Childline would be attended by the police, and they would use their discretion to divert the calls to NGOs for support. Doubtful about the announcement, the civil society around child work petitioned the government urging it to reconsider the move. More than 100 organisations and individuals endorsed the petition prepared by All India Working Group for Rights of Children, which said in unequivocal terms that the proposal would do more harm than good. Over the years, Childline has received not only calls that required police intervention but also those from children in mental distress requiring immediate or long-term counselling and support. A significant number of calls include requests for food, books, shelter and scholarships. They are handled by trained professionals who then intervene in an appropriate manner. The Forum for Promotion of Child Participation, Tamil Nadu, spoke to 103 children, and all but one of them opposed the move to shift Childline to the Home Ministry as they were sceptical of the police.

Also read: India's vaccination policy: A U-turn and a spin

One child said: “When we think of police we are only reminded of violence. So, we are afraid that they may take violent action against us. If we share about any abusive incident with our parents, they will feel comfortable to make the complaint with Childline, but they will never come forward to place the complaint with the police.”

Children constitute 39 per cent of the population in India, according to HAQ. In a policy brief on “Rights of Children in the Time of Covid-19”, HAQ said that restrictions imposed by the lockdown deprived several groups of children and families of their right to a dignified life. “The pandemic is also having a discriminatory impact on children based on their identity, location or situation and aggravating their vulnerabilities. Children’s voices have been absent and efforts need to be made by the government to hear their views…. Societies and families’ inherent desire to care for and protect children must be harnessed to prioritise them in budgets, policies, and action to deal with COVID-19,” the brief stated.

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