In a small, colourfully painted house on India’s eastern coast, G Sonali Reddy cooks meals and feeds her younger siblings by day and rocks them to sleep at night, hoping to assuage their fears, just as her mother would.
Reddy (14) is her family's caretaker. Several years ago, her father took his own life after the failure of the family's business selling spare trolley parts. Then in May, her mother, Sabita, contracted Covid-19 as a calamitous wave of infections swept across India.
Within hours of reaching the closest city hospital with medical oxygen, Sabita Reddy was dead. “My mother kept us safe like an umbrella does, from the heat and rain of life,” said Sonali Reddy, holding back tears. “I imagine her being close to me. That’s what keeps me going.”
Reddy and her siblings are among more than 3,000 Indian children who have been orphaned during the pandemic, according to state governments. They are a heart-rending testament to the devastation wrought on families as coronavirus erased hundreds of thousands of lives across the country.
Even with all that has been lost, the orphans' plight has punctured the public consciousness, an acknowledgment of the profound challenges facing a country already full of vulnerable children. Indian states have announced compensation of about €6 to €57 per month for each orphan, along with promises of food and free education. Prime minister Narendra Modi vowed in a tweet to "ensure a life of dignity and opportunity" for the children.
But advocates fear that when the attention inevitably fades, the orphans will be left susceptible to neglect and exploitation. Already, the children, shellshocked in some cases from the loss of their entire families, have found it difficult to obtain death certificates to qualify for government benefits. Some will also find it hard to return to school.
In the longer term, the many orphans from poor families in remote areas face the risk of human trafficking and child marriage. Trafficking of children is rampant in India, where they are enslaved for work or sex. And the country has the largest number of child brides in the world, according to Unicef.
Adoption is not an option for many of the orphans, given cultural taboos against the practice. Older children, in particular, often cannot be matched with adoptive families.
"The government is trying to save its face as the catastrophic tragedy ravaged India," said Medha Pande, a law student at Delhi University who has written about sociolegal issues arising from the pandemic. "They came out looking unprepared," she added. "They are just creating a subgroup out of a larger group of vulnerable children, saying they can easily look after them."
On a recent morning, officials in the village of Pattapur, in Odisha state, arrived at Reddy’s home, where her maternal grandmother moved in after her daughter’s death. They had come to deliver an “orphan pension” to the children, enough money to last for the summer.
Bank accounts were opened in their names. The officials dropped off large bags of rice. Saucer-eyed, Reddy listened carefully as they rattled off a list of instructions for using her bank account. Her siblings – Jagabalia (8) and Bhabana (5) – looked on listlessly, clutching their sister’s blue dress. Even before her mother’s death, the family had a meagre existence. Newly widowed, Sabita Reddy opened a small snack shop in the front room of their home. She spent what little money she had to provide after-school study for her oldest child.
With her father gone, Sonali Reddy was especially close to her mother. “My siblings beg me: ‘We want to go to Mummy,’” Reddy said as she fiddled with her thumbs. “When our father passed away, we thought, ‘At least mummy is there.’ Now, the virus has taken her away too.”
Hundreds of kilometres away in the southern city of Hyderabad, G Sathwik Reddy (13) – no relation to Sonali Reddy – hears similar pleas from his sister after their parents died during the peak of India’s recent wave of infections. When his sister, three-year-old Haanvi, asks for “Mummy and Daddy”, he tells her simply, “They will come home tomorrow.”
Their father, Gopal Reddy, had a small business making iron fences for farms. Like millions of middle-class Indian families, they saved as much as they could to send their children to a private school. Their mother, Deepa Reddy, cooked special chicken dishes for her children every Sunday and helped Sathwik with his homework.
In April, Gopal and Deepa and the children’s grandmother contracted the virus within days of each other. With chronic oxygen shortages in India and hospitals turning away patients, the family worried about their chances. Once at a hospital, Deepa became gravely ill. She remained intubated for two weeks, unconscious. Gopal’s lungs, too, rapidly deteriorated.
By early May, all three were dead. At the crematory, Sathwik Reddy saw his father’s face for a brief moment from behind a plastic sheet. He became numb with shock. Now, he often cries himself to sleep. “I must stay strong for my sister,” he said.
In the dusty plains of northern India, Shawez Saifi (18) finds himself sniffing back tears in the dark of night, when his sister jolts awake, screaming for their mother. Their parents, Shamshad and Shabnam Saifi, became sick in April, and Shawez took them to a local doctor, who recommended a coronavirus test. But with little money to go around from the dwindling work that father and son did on construction sites, Shabnam suggested they return to their home in Murad Nagar to recuperate.
The children slept on the veranda outside their one-room shack while the parents locked themselves inside. After their condition quickly worsened, they moved to a relative’s house. A few days later, Shabnam was dead. Her husband died a few days after that.
When Shawez, who had given up his studies to work with his father, returned home without his parents, the landlord had locked them out, saying he would give them the key only after the rent was paid. His uncle borrowed money to cover some of the debt so that Shawez and his siblings could collect their belongings.
Shawez’s younger sister, Kahkashan (9), has been hit the hardest. Nearly every day, she picks up the phone and rings her mother, talking to her as if she were on the other end. “Mother, when will you come? I miss you,” she says.
Shawez said: “My only dream is to educate my siblings. My mother would call me when I would be out for work and ask, ‘Son, it is getting late. When will you come home?’ Now no one will call me any more.”
In Pattapur, Sonali Reddy, too, feels as if she has lost her most powerful protector. In a thick diary, on the page next to the one on which she has noted the dates of her parents’ deaths, Reddy jotted a poem dedicated to her mother. On a recent day, she read it aloud to her siblings:
“Undergoing the ups and downs of life, Our mother brings us up. / Our mother is the tallest in this world, She is the one who can keep us well. / This world is barren without mother, This world is not the same place without her. / Mother bears the pain on our behalf, But we fail to bear the pain on mother’s behalf. – New York Times