Unheard Voices: Covid-19, Policies and Children

About two months back, a four-years-old girl lost her father to Covid-19 in North India. Since she did not see her dad leaving home nor attended his funeral service, there is no way for her to understand death. 

Her world turned upside down, just in a matter of days. She does not quite understand why her Papa would not show up to their camping. Her Mama would not tell where her Papa has gone. Suddenly, their world seems to have turned gloomy. 

This situation is not an isolated event. It is the reality of many children who lost their parents or guardians. Covid-19 has ravaged their lives (and ours as well).  

At a difficult time like this, we must ask whether our country (i.e., national/state level) has a policy or system that can sustain the needs of children orphaned by Covid-19. Do we have a national/state policy or childcare system that can address the growing needs of children? Do we have enough NGOs (or other such organizations) that can provide child care and protection? Moreover, as the policy makers of Christian organizations, church, or church associations, do we have any system in place or ministerial response for children? Is our belief sustainable to respond to the social needs of the world, especially the needs of children orphaned by Covid-19? 

Orphaned Children (Data!) 

On 5th June 2021, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) informed the Supreme Court that over 30,000 children have been orphaned by Covid-19. Amongst the worst affected states are Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where thousands of children are orphaned (7,084 children, 3,172 children and 2,482 children respectively). These children lost one of the parents, both the parents, or they are abandoned. These data are taken from the reported cases in the country. Yet, considering the fact that there is underreporting of Covid-19 cases and mortality (especially during the second wave), one can assume that the numbers are much higher. In addition, there is a systemic neglect of the neglected sections of the Indian society. This social evil does not only make the fight against the coronavirus disease more difficult, but makes the available data unreliable. It can be assumed that the concerns of the children who are affected by Covid-19 are worse than what is reported in the news media. 

Plans and Policies 

Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported on 27th January 2020, the government of India took-up several initiatives i.e., drew out plans and policies (for Covid-19 timeline-India, click the link). One of their first tasks was to screen passengers arriving from China, and from other parts of the world. But as the disease continued to spread, they gave recommendations to maintain social distancing, along with travel restrictions. With the advice of health-based experts, a 21-day nationwide lockdown was imposed at the end of March. This was followed by further lockdown in the month of April and May, but with the exception of places where Covid-19 spread has been contained. The lockdown limited the movements of 138 crores of people. After these lockdowns, there were phases of unlock 1.0-7.0 till the month of December 2020. However, due to the second Covid-19 wave, several states had to announce partial lockdowns to curtail the spread of the disease. 

Between the first and second wave, the policy makers made evacuation plans, legal announcements, and announced economic packages. In addition, there were law enforcement, judiciary announcements, cultivated international relations, set up a mobile phone application (Aarogya Setu), etc. These beneficiaries, announcements, and enforcements aim to gather the economic, social, and security needs of those who are affected by Covid-19. Yet, most of the schemes and plans of the policy makers do not directly benefit the children. Even those plans that could (indirectly) benefit children in need, such as the economic package for women, poor families, senior citizens, and migrant workers appear to be compromised. Because of the lack of accessibility and endemic corruption, many of the supposed beneficiaries did not receive the economic package (e.g., the Jharkhand case). Simply put, there is an absence of a system that offers child care and protection. 

Orphaned Children, Widows and Response

Responding to this tragic reality, national and state policy makers made some announcements and orders to protect the orphaned children caused by the pandemic. But since there is no system in place, they are coming up with different ideas that appear to be far from implementation. PM Cares made a promise to pay and care for the education of orphaned children. This plan will take the form of creating a corpus of Rs. 10 lakh fixed deposit; the corpus will then provide a monthly allowance for their higher education. In addition, all children will receive health insurance till the age of 18 under Ayushman Bharat Scheme (PM-JAY). 

Along with the central announcement, there are states like Maharashtra and Karnataka who have made announcements to provide financial aid to orphaned children, and widows. Their plan is to provide immediate support to children who have lost parents or women who have lost their husband. These announcements will take some time to be put into practice. Tragically, it will not take into account the many unreported cases of Covid-19. They will most likely remain the unheard voice. Despite this reality, what can be done is to gather the immediate needs of the children who lost their caregivers/parents. 

What is also needed is to institute some sort of system for child care. With the loss of the caregivers/parents, children are at the risk of abuse, exploitation, child trafficking, child marriage, etc. Along with the direct effect of Covid-19, recent studies suggest that Covid-19 can have a long-term impact on children. The closures of school and movement has greatly affected the social support and routine medical check-up of children. Considering this reality, child experts are arguing for a nationwide campaign to protect children from the socio-economic loss of caregivers/parents. While civil organizations are coming forward to help, their reach is limited to only a handful of children. In addition to instituting plans and policies for child care and protection, there is also the need for national policy that spreads awareness about children and their needs. 

Understanding Children

What is also required of us, as ordinary people, is to understand the kind of emotional turmoil the children are going through with the loss of caregivers/parents. We need individual and community efforts to address the needs of the children in our country. 

One of the many ways we can help children is to understand how a child may understand death or permanent disappearance of caregiver/parents from their life. The following description provides a brief description of how a child may perceive death (see Child Bereavement UK):

An infant (0-12 months) and toddler (12-36 months) may experience a sense of abandonment and insecurity when their caregiver or parents die. A preschooler (3-5 years) may use the term ‘dead’ or give interest in the idea of death in animals, but they are unable to comprehend that death is permanent. School children (5-7 years) begin to grasp that death is permanent and those who are dead will not return; children aged between 9-12 years understand the finality of death, but there is a strong tendency of denial. Teenagers (12-19 years) may understand death subjectively, and their grieving of the loss of someone can strongly impact their personal growth. 

It has not been easy for us, adults, to understand death or the circumstances that revolve around the subject of death. When it comes to children, they will need all the help that they can get. Ideally, it would be good if such a system comes from the policy makers of the country and its collaboration with other sectors. But now, such a system of childcare and protection is absent or yet to be conceived in our country. Where then do we seek help for the orphaned children?

Children and Church

We can perhaps direct the above question to the church, church associations, and Christian organizations. There is a need for us to get involved and to institute plans to take care of the needs of children across the country (and beyond). The neglect of the concerns of children by the policy makers at the national and state level is a serious concern. Like the policy makers of the country, we should ask whether there is a systemic neglect of children within our own community. There is no need to point fingers here. We are all probably guilty as charged. The question that needs answering is this: How can we, as a church, help our children during a national catastrophe? 

Since there appear to be long term national (and state) plans, what the orphaned children need is the immediate provisions of essentials. They will need social-psychological counsel from friends, family and responsible individuals (such as pastors, counsellors, teachers, etc.). They will need communal protection, if not state protection, from perpetrators who will put their life at risk. 

While the rest of the children who are not directly affected by Covid-19, they will need a platform that will keep their mind and body engaged. They will need to engage in activities, whether online or face-to-face, where they can experience interactive learning. People who engage in children ministry ought to reorient their approach and make their ministry contextual and relational. Policy makers of such ministries ought to examine whether their approach is sustainable to serve and help children meaningfully and efficiently. 

When the pandemic hit our region, we provided alternatives to church service through conferencing apps (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet, etc.), YouTube, or through a local microphone. Though we could not gather in groups or sing communal choral songs, timely sermons could be heard in one of the above applicants. While the needs of the grownups are gathered, the children remain largely neglected. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, children who are the unheard voices of the policy makers, will need utmost attention from our end.

Dr Taimaya Ragui is currently an academic research coordinator of The Shepherd’s Academyof Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His specialization is in the area of interfacing theological interpretation of Scripture and contextual theology. Views are personal.

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