It’s impossible at this time to come up with a realistic count of the children who had their lives worsened during the pandemic.
While the fear of contracting the disease has in itself been a traumatizing event for children, irregular and oppressive lockdowns have brought major changes to their lives. Schools, which provided them emotional stability, a mid day meal and a place to be, have been closed for more than a year. And the places they call home, struck by death, disease and poverty. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 97 per cent of the households had their incomes reduced since the beginning of the pandemic last year.
Home itself proved to be an abusive place for many children, evidenced by the increased number of calls made to Childline 1098 helpline. Around the time the lockdown was announced last March, it received 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in just 11 days. It is equally distressing to realize that throughout the pandemic, many would have been too scared to call for help due to the constant presence of their abusers at home.
It is also clear that many will never go back to school again. A recent ILO & UNICEF report says that 160 million children were being subjected to child labour worldwide at the start of 2020. And it estimates that a further 8.9 million children will be stuck in child labour by the end of 2022. When children enter the labour market, it is very hard for them to come out of it.
A decline in household incomes also means that girls are being married off early, potentially putting them in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and domestic violence.
Children who have lost one or both parents due to the pandemic are particularly vulnerable. They have both isolation and traumatic bereavement to deal with. On May 28, the Supreme Court, while hearing a suo motu case seeking identification of orphaned children, had asked states and UTs to upload data on the number of children affected by the pandemic. This data, by NCPCR, shows that 26,176 children lost either parent and 3,621 children have been orphaned since April last year. Some were abandoned. Consider this a fraction of true numbers.
The Juvenile Justice Act allows relatives of an orphaned or abandoned child to adopt them, once the Child Welfare Committee declares the child as “legally free” for adoption. Fortunately, it is often that relatives are willing to take care of the child. But in low-income families, the new guardians will need financial assistance. Assistance that must come through a central government scheme.
On its part, the Center has announced a 10 lakh rupee fixed deposit scheme for orphaned children, for college education. Provisions for enrolling and schooling these children have been made. But welfare measures must go beyond education and they must not be contingent upon having to prove orphanage.
By our apathy, we have deprived children of a dignified life. It cannot be repaid by doing the bare minimum. And this is no time to help selectively. District and local authorities must be employed to identify all children who have been rendered vulnerable due to the impact of COVID-19. Any State intervention must include mental health care as one of its components.
Whatever may be in their proverbial best interests, ignoring them is not one of them. A difficult childhood leads to a difficult adulthood, especially in places where inequities are stark.
This editorial titled ‘Failing Our Kids: How The Pandemic Affected Children‘ has been written by Tushar Kohli and represents the collective view of the Editorial Team.