COVID-19 has come with a whirlwind of challenges that have brought the whole world to its knees. The health, economic, social, and emotional impacts are all being dreaded. While we all have our own set of anxieties to gear up for, one of the cohorts often missed out is that of – children. Even when we do talk of children, we universalize the identities, experiences and needs of children. Children, like all other demographics, is not a homogeneous group. Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, trans, gender non conforming children, children with disabilities, children with mental illnesses, or children fighting with fatal diseases, are fighting this pandemic much worse than other privileged groups. Marginalization amplifies vulnerabilities. The experiences, needs and impact of COVID19 on children from various identities are to be understood through their own experiences.
As a social worker, working with and specialized in the field of child rights, I cannot stop thinking about what the times to come hold for our children. How will each of our children experience this pandemic and the catastrophe to follow? Are we prepared for supporting them? This article is not intended to give any advice or claim any solutions, this is a completely reflective piece, that hopefully makes us think. Let us go through some situations that lend vulnerability and threat to children in general and see if COVID19 magnifies the vulnerability further.
Children living in the slums of urban cities, more than often belong to migrant families, many of them belong to families where the parents are daily wage earners or working as labourers in various sectors. Their access to food and especially nutritious food has drastically dropped due to the closing down of schools, Anganwadi centres and mid-day meals. This has also put them out of learning environments.
With growing uncertainty about when this lockdown will end, there is also no surety when the learning will resume. While the world over we are using digital platforms to keep our work going, many schools and colleges have also attempted digital learning, but do the majority of our children in India have access to this super-luxury, in times of a pandemic? Digital divide, is that a reality we are choosing to ignore? Digital access for most of us is the only form of connectivity during these times of isolation. But in these acts of belonging and connectivity, are we able to include everyone?
Forget digital learning, we are always harping about social distancing in these times, but in a dingy slum lane, with houses that don’t have a one feet distance between them, how are people supposed to maintain that distance? Social/Physical distancing is an elite luxury that millions of people in our country and world over cannot afford. Slums mostly have shared resources like community toilets. All of us have notched up our sanitation mechanisms to fight this pandemic, but when thousands of people share a toilet, how do we maintain the sanitation of the kind that is needed to keep this virus away? According to the National Sample Survey (2012, 69th round), above 20% of urban slum-dwelling population used public/community toilets that were paid or free, and around 36.1 % had no access to toilets. In most cities, community kitchens have been started to fight starvation, and people are doing their best to maintain distance and sanitation, but is it really possible? And when one has to choose between starvation and possible exposure to the virus, what will one choose?
Open playing spaces have never been a luxury that slum-dwelling children, by and large, can afford but with the stay at home orders, the remaining right to play is also gone. Children in urban slums grow up together. Even during these times, if any of us has the access to get any ground report, we will see how children are not confined within homes, not because they don’t want to be, but simply because they don’t have adequate space. With the rising number of cases of community transmission in Mumbai, we are waiting on a ticking bomb, of the slums in Mumbai, and if you had an idea of the living conditions of these slums (beyond Dharavi too), you would know that social distancing is a 1000 years away.
In such a case if any slum has an outbreak of the virus, will we be able to contain the spread? I highly doubt.
Even though the pandemic has not spread yet in rural parts, and we really hope it doesn’t, the lives of children in rural areas are equally impacted. With the stop of goods and services from cities to villages, children are only going to be able to access basic food, if at all, and not adequately nutritious food. They too are missing out on mid-day meals, as well as the learning from school and Anganwadi centres. The digital divide is far higher for the rural population. For homes, where electricity is yet to enter, expecting digital learning infrastructure is way out of line.
If the economy cannot support farmers in the coming weeks in getting their produce to the cities, we might even be seeing starvation among children in rural areas leading to major nutritional deficiencies – wasting, stunting etc, maybe even death.
Many men and women from rural areas migrate to urban areas in search of better livelihood options. Sometimes the children accompany and other times, they stay back. In either of these cases, we can remember the terrifying image of thousands of migrant workers who set out on foot for their homes, from various cities, and thousands /lakhs more are stuck at various parts of the country, with heightened anxieties about how to secure food for their families back in villages.
It is also important to always remember that during a pandemic, access to prompt health care is of utmost importance. Do our villages have that? And even the existing systems of health care, food security, and other such essential services in the rural areas, are these open to all the people in the villages equitably? Are we already not aware of how upper castes have all-powerful control over resources?
It is a reality that CCIs in India are highly overcrowded in general. While that is not supposed to be, it is the alarming reality in the alternative care system of our country. These children have poor access to WASH, are often undernourished and their mental health is highly affected. Given the lockdown, things might get worse for our CCIs. If food is not stocked up enough, the homes will face a major food security crisis. In case even one person comes into contact with the virus, the outbreak in a crowded home will be far harder to contain.
With the shutdown of contact with the outside world, there will be no visits from families/extended families, or volunteers and other guests, this will most definitely lead to greater feelings of loneliness, isolation and increased trauma of institutionalization. What’s to say that with the shortage of staff in CCIs, there will not be an increase in the existing level of violence in the homes?
While talking about institutions for children, we must acknowledge that children’s own identities inside the institution are often erased and they are just another child in the home. But again we must ask, who are these children for whom no one takes responsibility? Who are these children of the state, growing up in closed rooms far removed from the world? Aren’t these children of the most vulnerable, most marginalized groups?
In the daily lives of children living inside CCIs, there is a routine, and this routine is directed towards the rehabilitation of the child. Despite the need for much improvement in most CCIs, this routine in the lives of children truly helps in building their character and helping them cope with harsh realities. With this lockdown, creating a shortage of visiting staff, teachers etc, this routine will be highly impacted and in such a case there is bound to be a detrimental impact on the mental health of these children.
Just before the official lockdowns, we saw a mass exodus of people returning home, from migrant workers going back to villages, to various young people working or studying in various cities, trying hard to come back home, hostels being evacuated and international students and NRIs rushing back home. ‘Home’ a comfort space, a safe space we all tried to grasp as soon as things went out of our control. Even for those of us stuck in places that are not ‘home’, we keep thinking of going there as soon as this is over. Well our children in institutions have a right to that home too. Institutions are not home. Even the best institutions are nowhere close to home.
Children in conflict zones, children of refugees, children in relief camps affected by communal violence – the biggest need is of safety and protection of the lives and basic well being of these children. At this point, we have to ask, who are these children stuck in conflict zones? Are they upper-caste, upper-class children of rich parents minting money left right and center? Or are they Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi children stuck in conflict zones because of encroachment and attacks from the upper caste, powerful, rich politicians and business persons? Conflicts are human-created disasters and while we are gearing up for this pandemic we have to acknowledge that this struggle is far worse for those who are already stifled by human-made disasters.
Communal riots in Delhi left more than 50 people dead, and in fact they weren’t even riots but meticulously organised pogroms. The massacre has forced thousands of families from North East Delhi to seek refuge in a camp towards the outskirts of Delhi. How will the families in those camps secure themselves from this deadly virus?
There are hundreds of vulnerabilities that children are dealing with. Children who are dealing with mental illnesses, and disabilities are struggling with this pandemic with so much more. How many of them will have access to their own set of basic essentials, which may be so different from able-bodied people? How are children taking care of unwell or terminally ill parents/grandparents going to access basic essentials or even health care facilities? Children who are grappling with substance abuse, in this lockdown situation may be struggling with the nightmares of withdrawal syndromes. So the question that I mean to really ask is – What is the post COVID19 world holding for our children? Are we expecting that girls may soon drop out of schools after this is all over, as families struggle to make ends meet? Will many menstruating children shift to cloth as sanitary products become luxury products while struggling for food? As we sit behind our TV screens, applauding the use of brutality by police, saying that is the only way to keep Indians at home, are we contemplating who will take responsibility for the children of those who died due to this brutality like the man in West Bengal who went to get milk? Will his family, in the midst of this pandemic, be even able to grasp and grieve his death? Additionally, are we sure that this brutality is not being meted out to children?
Mothers and children are an important duo with whom any social work, and government interventions are working especially with respect to nutrition and sanitation. It is believed that the first 1000 days after a child’s birth are of absolute importance in determining the quality and level of growth and importance. This pandemic might have a disastrous impact on children who were born just before or will be born in the midst of this mass hysteria. As mentioned above, this is especially to ponder about our preparedness to support pregnant women, and lactating mothers, who belong to urban slums, or rural areas, or conflict zones, in this ongoing pandemic, with nutrition, access to quality and prompt health care as well as psycho-social support in these high anxiety-filled days.
Are we prepared to see many many more children pushed towards the worlds of crime as poverty kicks in harder? Are we going to be more human, or will we jump into criminalizing our own hungry, troubled young souls? Are we going to be able to fill in the huge void that lack of learning for so many months will create in the lives of our children? As the world shifts towards digital learning are we stopping to think about the HUGE digital divide that is a glaring reality of India? While we remind each other to wash hands with soap for twenty seconds, how many of our children have access to clean water?