Nitish Kumar will never forget the day he and his sisters buried their dead mother in the back garden.
Just 32, Priyanka Devi had died from Covid on 3 May. Neighbours and relatives refused to help with her burial, and all the family’s money had gone on hospital fees.
The coronavirus pandemic had hit his family, who live in the small village of Madhulata in the deprived Indian state of Bihar, with a tragic double blow. It was his father, 40-year-old doctor Birendra Mehta, who had first developed symptoms of Covid-19 in the last week of April. Swiftly after, his mother, 32-year-old Priyanka Devi, also fell sick. Both were transferred to a private hospital they could barely afford, but on 3 May, Mehta died from coronavirus. Using the small amount of money the family had left, a cremation was arranged for his last rites
But without anything left to pay for her treatment, Devi was discharged from the private hospital and sent home. On 7 May, she died too. With Covid stigma rife in the local community, no neighbours or relatives came forward to help the orphaned children perform her last rites. Instead, Kumar, 16-year-old Soni Kumari and 12-year-old Chandani Kumari found themselves orphans, having to handle the corpse of their mother alone.
The devastating Covid second wave that engulfed India in April, one of the worst experienced by any nation, may finally have abated, but trauma and death has been left in its wake. There was barely a family in India left untouched by the virus, and with Covid hitting adults much worse than children, it has resulted in thousands becoming orphans in the past few weeks.
According to a report of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), at least 1,742 children have lost both their parents to Covid, while 7,464 have lost one parent. But with the official coronavirus toll of more than 340,000 considered to be a vast undercount, it is highly likely the number of Covid orphans is far higher than any records will show.
For Kumar and his sisters, still grieving their father, they day they lost their mother was the darkest of their life. He had carried his mother’s body to the back yard of their house and dug the grave while Soni, the eldest sister, then dressed herself in a PPE suit and buried the body as best she could.
At the age of 14, Kumar is now the only breadwinner of the family, and feared he would have to drop out of school to make money to feed his sisters. “I wanted to become a doctor,” said Kumar. “But my first priority now is to arrange food for my sisters rather than continuing with my studies. Right now, we are surviving on relief materials being donated by social workers but they will not be available all the time. I will have to work. With their death, my dream too was buried.”
His sister Soni spoke of her fears for the future without their parents. “We have no sources of income,” she said. “We will have to do something to keep us alive.”
In another case that horrified the country, six-year-old twins Tripti and Pari were found lying asleep next to their mother who had died of Covid, unaware she was dead.
Officials and NGOs have spoken of their concern that these children left without parents now face the double threat of neglect and being vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.
“In this pandemic situation, orphaned children are the most vulnerable to the human traffickers. Especially the children from poor, low caste communities have the maximum chances of falling into traffickers’ trap,” said Suresh Kumar, a member of Human Liberty Network, a group of non-profit organizations working to stop child trafficking.
His volunteers are also keeping a close watch on the movements of children at bus stops and railway stations to save them from falling into the clutches of the traffickers.
Children orphaned by Covid are being placed in state-run homes but meanwhile, illegal appeals for the adoption of Covid orphans, often babies, have also become rampant on social media, prompting child protection organisations to take out newspaper adverts warning people not to respond and instead report the posts. The NCPCR said they had also created a web portal where all cases of Covid orphans and those children abandoned during the pandemic in India are to be uploaded to prevent the children falling through the cracks.
Yet many children who have found themselves orphans of the pandemic are now struggling to survive. Shatrughn Kumar, 12, of Dumaria village in Bihar had been raised by his single mother after his father passed away. But she died last month after showing Covid symptoms, leaving Kumar as the only person to look after his eight-year-old brother.
“I work at a construction site to earn a livelihood but the income is very meagre,” Shatrughn said. He had already been rescued from child exploitation at a bangle factory in Rajasthan – places known for brutal work conditions, terrible pay and rampant use of child labour – a couple of years ago. But with his mother gone, 12-year-old Shatrughn said his only option for survival was to return to the factory floor.