As they sit on the floor of their brightly colored Delhi home, she places another plate of food in front of a framed photo of her parents. They died just a few weeks ago from Covid-19.
The 23-year-old teacher has become the primary caregiver and breadwinner for five of her siblings, ages 4 to 14, and a major force for her 20-year-old older sister. She barely had time to mourn.
“My biggest fear is whether or not I will be able to love them like mum and dad,” said Devika, who only uses her first name for confidentiality reasons.
“I will earn money, I have confidence in myself. My sister will also earn money, I trust her. We can do what needs to be done in terms of money, but the absence of parents in their life is a huge gap. fill, how can we ever fill that void? ” she said.
Social workers scramble to find them, fearing that they will be vulnerable to traffickers or end up on the streets if left to fend for themselves.
‘They are together now’
Just a few months ago, life was very different for Devika and her family. Devika focused on earning a bachelor’s degree in education and teaching children in her spare time.
His father worked as a pandit – or Hindu priest – in a temple and visited houses to perform rituals. He insisted on going to work, even as cases skyrocketed in the capital. Her mother stayed at home most of the time, looking after the children, and sometimes also helping in the temple.
Devika tried to isolate the children upstairs, but it was too late. The whole family, including his 53-year-old father, developed a fever. Although the children were never tested for Covid-19, Devika’s mother later tested positive in hospital.
The children recovered, but their mother’s condition deteriorated and it was impossible to receive proper medical care. After visiting three hospitals in one night, Devika finally found one in a nearby town. it would take his mother, although there is no oxygen or ventilators.
“We were so helpless. We did everything we could. But we failed,” she said.
Around the same time, her father was admitted to a Delhi hospital. When her mother passed away on April 29, Devika didn’t have the courage to tell her. He had a phrase he would say a lot to his wife: “Without you, there is no pleasure in living.”
Devika recalled when her mother’s body was taken to Delhi hospital where she father was being treated so that he could see her one last time before she was cremated.
“Mum was in the ambulance, dad got out of the hospital and then he saw. He looked down and didn’t say anything,” Devika said.
After that, she thinks her father has lost the will to live. A week later, on May 7, he also died of Covid.
“We really think he wanted to go with mom,” Devika said.
“My dad loved mom. They’re together now,” she added, crying.
After her parents died, Devika feared that the authorities would take her siblings away from her. She called a ruled government childcare hotline for advice.
They told her she was the primary caretaker – and it was up to her to decide what to do.
The past few weeks have been blurry. Devika took out loans to pay for her parents’ hospital care, and now that money is helping support the family. She juggles caring for her siblings, her academic workload, and her part-time job. The family also receives dry rations from non-governmental organizations, Prayaas and Childline. Devika hasn’t had time to deal with her own grief yet; she wants to be strong for her siblings.
“So much has happened that tears don’t come,” she said.
What are we doing to help
Devika told the children’s hotline that she lost both parents, but that’s not always the case.
Organizations are looking for children who may need their help and rely on social media, hearsay and appeals to Childline, a department of the Department for Women and Child Development that existed before Covid .
For children in rural areas, accessing help can be difficult. They have less internet access and fewer safety nets, says Save the Children India Managing Director Sudarshan Suchi.
“The ones we don’t know are what worries me the most,” Suchi said.
They also face movement restrictions, incorrect information and fear of contracting Covid from neighbors who could have helped otherwise.
In one case, Save the Children staff discovered two children whose father died in hospital and whose mother died at home, both of Covid. The two children were suspected of having Covid, so neighbors in their slum avoided helping them and the children were unable to use shared bathrooms, Suchi said.
“If before an earthquake or flood happened to a small village or settlement, everyone came together and found ways to rescue. When Covid happens, everyone’s first thought is to stay away. ‘gap,’ Suchi said. “He’s an unknown ghost. People with a collective spirit and traditions of community service are partly suspicious of that sort of thing today.”
If things go well, children can be connected with their extended family – the general principle is that institutional care cannot be the first resort, and that a home environment is better for the child, said Anurag Kundu , Chairman of the Delhi Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.
But organizations are concerned about what will happen if vulnerable children slip through the cracks, leaving them at risk of ending up on the streets or being trafficked.
In May, Union Cabinet Minister for the Development of Women and Children, Smriti Z Irani, urged those who hear of orphaned children to inform authorities – and not to share information with their subject online, lest they be targeted by traffickers.
“Before the pandemic, under normal circumstances, there were over 2 million children in distress as such on the streets every day,” Suchi said in May. “If anything in the pandemic, it could only get worse, not better.”
Even before the second wave, more children were living on the streets, said Kundu – mostly likely victims of the months-long lockdown in India that left millions of the country’s daily wage earners out of work.
“I have never seen so many children on the streets in my entire life as I have seen in the past 12 months,” Kundu said. “The socio-economic aspect of it will be felt in times to come.”
What does the future look like
For now, the focus is on the safety of children. But India’s Covid orphans show how much of last year’s devastation is likely to be felt long after the pandemic is over.
Suchi said the first priority was survival.
“These kids, being already vulnerable, are going to spiral into this. It’s not just about Covid disease – it’s about their education, it’s about their health, it’s about of their basic social fabric which suddenly collapsed, ”Suchi said. After that, there was a need for support for their future.
“You can’t save a kid from the middle of the stream and then let him drown near the end of the stream or somewhere near the shore.”
UNICEF India Representative Yasmin Ali Haque said it was important to consider not only the physical needs of the child – adequate housing, food, education, for example – but also the psychological impact.
“The child is deprived of the loving care of his parents, of growing up in a family environment,” she said. “The psychosocial impact on a child can be long lasting, can last a lifetime.”
The future of her siblings weighs heavily on Devika.
she didn’t tell him younger siblings that their parents are dead – so far they have been told that their parents have returned to their village in the countryside.
When her parents were alive, Devika wondered why they walked out as the pandemic raged – the day her mother developed a fever, Devika asked her not to go to the temple to help. Devika told them that it was more important to be alive and safe than to earn money.
“I never understood why,” she said. “Now that I’m where they were, I finally understand them. I understand why they left home.”
Vedika Sud and Esha Mitra reported from New Delhi. Julia Hollingsworth has written and reported from Hong Kong. Sandi Sidhu contributed reporting. Video of Vijay Bedi in New Delhi.