In Covid-19 times, take special care of children: analysis
Until a few weeks ago, older people and others with pre-existing medical conditions were said to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). Later, reports showed that young adults were also victims. But all the time, we were led to believe that children were more or less likely to become infected with the virus.
However, there are now reports that children are also vulnerable, but mercifully to a lesser degree. We know that we now have information that children, including young children, have contracted the virus in India. Although these are lost incidents, it does not, and cannot, mean that we can afford to let our guard down when it comes to protecting children. It is important to appreciate the magnitude of the problem and address it along with other challenges related to the pandemic.
A report released by the Ministry of Development of Women and Children in September 2018, with data collected as of March 2017, shows that there are 9,589 registered and unregistered child care institutions (CCIs) that have 3,70,227 children in need care and protection, and 7,422 children in conflict with the law. These include children of single parents, orphans, abandoned or surrendered children, sexually abused children and victims of child pornography, children who have been trafficked, the homeless, the mentally disabled, and victims of child marriage.
While only nine percent of ICCs have government support, 91% are administered by nonprofit organizations. With the national blockade and the possibility of children becoming infected with the virus, is enough being done to care for them, both by governments and non-governmental organizations? We must remember that these children have no voice; they are the silent victims of many trials and tribulations.
After visiting some ICCs in different parts of the country and having met dozens of activists who have provided assistance in multiple institutions, I discovered that the facilities in many of them are appalling. The rooms or bedrooms are crowded; Medical and health facilities are basic, if they exist.
Like prisoners who are released on parole or on permit, the more than 7,000 children in conflict with the law can and should be treated with compassion, and released to join their families given that parent visits now they are impossible with a lock in place.
If adult minor prisoners can be released, why not minor children? They are no less equal. Unfortunately, many children who need care and protection have nowhere to go. A KIC is their only home. We need to think of them compassionately and pay more attention to their well-being.
The outside world may not be much better for these children, with or without a lock. A November 2019 statement from the Press Information Bureau tells us that child protection services, which are centrally sponsored schemes, provide assistance to 1,752 households, including CCI and open shelters. These services are available only to about 72,500 children. There are just over 1.35 million anganwadi centers across the country, but almost 25% do not have sanitary facilities; with even less drinking water. Therefore, washing hands without water is not easy. There are allegations from anganwadi sevikas that they have not been given masks, gloves and disinfectants. Caring for hundreds of thousands of children and their caregivers needs as much, if not more, attention than other sectors of society.
There are other collateral problems that children face in these difficult times. His education has suffered. Not many in the slums and rural areas can take advantage of online courses. There is also uncertainty about taking tests. Unicef has pointed out (among others) problems in immunizing younger children. Executive Director Henrietta Fore said: “The message is clear: We must not allow life-saving health interventions to fall victim to our efforts to address Covid-19.” In other words, staying safe and away from the virus is only part of the problem: There are more important governance and management issues that must also be addressed.
There is no doubt that the establishment, the institutions, the NGOs and the people are doing everything possible to face the health emergency. But, I think it should not be treated just as a health problem in view of the wide ramifications that the coronavirus has in different aspects of life. For many, the problem is one of sheer survival, particularly for the poor and the migrant labor force, and the police who wield the Latis must appreciate this. While we consider the needs and requirements of the stranded millions, let’s also think about the children who need our care, protection and comfort.
Madan Lokur is a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India
The opinions expressed are personal.