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A young boy looks back as Muslim devotees offer Jummat-Ul-Vida prayers on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan ahead of the Eid al-Fitr, at Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad.

NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the tragic fallout of India’s severe second wave of COVID-19 that is claiming nearly 4,000 lives a day, young children who have lost one or both parents to the disease in the past few weeks face an uncertain future. The issue is pervasive enough that there is now a term for it: “COVID orphans.”

Though there are no clear numbers yet, such cases, children’s-rights experts report, keep rising by the dozens every day: a two-year-old and two-month-old siblings who lost both their parents and were abandoned as their extended family hesitated to take them in for fear of being infected. A 13-year-old girl with parents critically ill in the ICU sent to a child-care institution as no one from her community could look after her. Two siblings who were home alone, trying to arrange for their parents’ cremation.

With increasing pleas for help across the country, states have begun to assign officers to identify children orphaned during the pandemic and offer them immediate support while making long-term arrangements for their rehabilitation. Children’s advocates are also raising the alarm over the potential for child trafficking while many children are left alone and vulnerable.

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In the past week, Sonal Kapoor, the Delhi-based founder director of child protection non-profit Protsahan India Foundation, has barely gotten off the phone. “We are overwhelmed with the number of distress calls we have received. The severity and the grief of what we are seeing has gone beyond what we have ever experienced. Other non-profits and child-protection groups have been reaching out to us to work with COVID-affected children,” she said, adding her organization is trying to hire eight more full-time counsellors to keep up with the need for assistance.

“We are struggling for funds and need more corporations and institutions to step up and support the children through the crisis,” Ms Kapoor said.

Divya Vaishnava, co-founder of child-rights organization Bud Foundation, said the second wave has been doubly hard on children as the recent high death toll from COVID is making people more reluctant to take in orphaned children as part of their family.

Against the backdrop of the chaos of an overwhelmed health care system and hundreds of thousands of devastated families, another worrying child-care issue is emerging.

In recent weeks, child-welfare authorities began to notice an alarming trend on social media: Hundreds of posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter were illegally offering up children for adoption. While some of these posts were pleas to aid children who had recently lost their parents to COVID-19, most appeared to be illegal adoption and child-trafficking rackets claiming to help orphaned children.

Ms. Vaishnava said she has lost count of the number of people she had to alert to remind them not to share details online about abandoned children. In India, adoption must be carried out through the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA). Children in distress should be connected to the centralized Childline helpline, local child-welfare committees or the nearest police station.

Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson for the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), said he was concerned some were attempting to stir up panic on social media to take advantage of the situation and push illegal adoption and child trafficking. He said NCPCR is is working with the police to crack down such cases.

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“So far, we don’t have definitive data on how many children are orphaned, but we have recommended to officers to follow legal procedures and produce the children before the child-welfare committee made up of social workers who will decide whether the child can be resettled with a family member or needs to be put up for adoption,” he said in an interview.

“Children are not commodities. They have rights – including property rights – so we cannot just detach them from their family. We are offering psychosocial support telephonically.”

Moved by the growing crisis of the COVID-19 orphans, more people are considering adoption, experts say, but child-rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana’s concern is that many don’t fully understand the legal process behind it.

“We don’t have to go around looking for families to adopt them – there are more than enough in the waiting line registered with CARA,” he explained. “But no child should be pushed into a hurried adoption at this time that could lead to more disruption. It’s important to note that behind the charity of ‘adoption,’ there is often organized crime and a number of violations.”

Indeed, along with a wave of parental loss, the floodgates to more violations have opened. Ms. Kapoor, who works in deeply impoverished areas across 50 slums in Delhi, began to observe an uptick in child abuse starting in mid-March.

“We have come across cases of the mother lost to COVID and the father pushing the child into trafficking. Cases of incest have shot up – fathers raping their daughters, brothers abusing their sisters. The severity of the cases has increased manifold, to a point that is heartbreaking even for teams who have been dealing with child-rights violations in the last decade,” she said.

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The coronavirus pandemic is no longer just a health crisis, said Kumar Shailabh, co-director of the Haq Centre for Child Rights. “The lack of protection for children is an emergency, too. The biggest problem is there is no centralized data to understand the needs of children during this crisis. We are trying to push for a response mechanism since the third wave is expected to affect children more severely,” he said.

Children bearing the brunt of the pandemic need long-term sustainable care, including psychosocial, medical and nutritional support, Bud Foundation’s Ms. Vaishnava noted.

Moved by the scale of the crisis, Mumbai-based equal-rights activist Harish Iyer recently launched a petition to expand adoption eligibility to all single, live-in and LGBTQ people that has attracted considerable support. “As a queer man, my possibilities for adoption are few,” he said. “I discovered that many queer or single people want to give homes to children who have lost their parents during this time. Why not open it up to us when there are so many children languishing in children’s homes?”

Children’s advocates underscore that the issue is complex. Usually, in the majority of the cases where children have been orphaned, someone from the immediate family takes them in, which is “a simpler, more sustainable model of kinship care,” Ms. Kapoor said. But now, with incomes dwindling because of lost jobs, many can’t afford to add another member to their home.

“As we try to counsel children who have either lost their parents, or are struggling as their parents are in the ICU, many are unable to cry – because it is so sudden and shocking. They have not been able to process it. They have not seen the bodies of their parents or witnessed the cremation, so there is no closure. Many are being told their parents will come back. There is a huge amount of denial. Children need to be told the truth,” she added.

“Knee-jerk counselling or programs will not help, because for kids, it has to be a long-term process and people need to invest in it. If not, we’re looking at an entire generation of broken adults that these children will grow up to be.”

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As India struggles under a second wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic, auto-rickshaws have become the latest symbols of hope in Delhi, doubling up as ambulances to help its collapsing healthcare system. Reuters

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