Home Opinion column We must protect children from harm during COVID-19

We must protect children from harm during COVID-19

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By Navin Jaiswal

So far, globally, thirty-eight lakh lives have been claimed by the deadly novel coronavirus. India alone accounts for the second-highest covid deaths in the world to date. But the actual loss is more profound than what these numbers depict.

People have failed to cope with the constant strains induced by the lockdown. Loss of livelihood, forced migration, lack of adequate food, availability and accessibility issues of essential resources and services, especially in the rural and underserved areas, have become the new normal for most resource-poor families. But this crisis is far more severe and surreptitious for our children, who are silently compromising with the challenges of school closure, suspended mid-day meals and other ICDS services.

The exclusionary nature of digital education has forced generations of learners out of the formal education system, furthering issues of child safety and protection. The first wave of the outbreak witnessed a growing number of child malnutrition, trafficking, forced labour and child marriage cases in economically poor and socially marginalized communities, which have been investigated and countered by the government and several child protection agencies.

But in the second wave, with a sudden spike in Covid deaths, the situation has further complicated with an increased reporting of children losing both or one parent across the country. According to the statistics presented by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), 3,621 children were orphaned, 26,176 children have lost either parent between April 1, 2021, to June 5, 2021. But in all likeliness, these figures are underreported since the actual death toll is much higher than the official estimates.

As a result of an increase of children losing both their parents to COVID, a flurry of social media posts regarding adoption led to recent Supreme Court order. In the order, the Court directed all state and union territories governments to take stringent action against private individuals and NGOs illegally inviting people to adopt children orphaned during the second wave.The apex court further asserted that all adoption processes must abide by the statutory provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 and must ensure the involvement of the statutory body of Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA).

The Supreme Court has also directed the states and union territories to identify children who need protection after March 2020 and update the database created by NCPCR to track the welfare support offered to these children. According to the mandate, the District Child Protection Officers (DCPOs) must work in tandem with the health officials, Panchayati raj institutions, ChildLine, police authorities, NGOs and other bodies to monitor the welfare of children orphaned by covid.

In Jharkhand, Chief Minister Shri Hemant Soren has taken a leading role in rehabilitating children orphaned by COVID-19. The Chief Minister has ordered all the district administrations to ensure proper care for such children through coordination with district child welfare committees. In adherence to Section 74 of the JJ Act 2015, which prohibits disclosure of the identity of children in the newspaper, audio-visual or any other form of public communication, the state and district authorities have issued helpline numbers to ensure that orphan cases are reported directly to the official government channels. Also, the government is drawing attention to the statutory warning under this provision which says that any person contravening this provision is liable for a fine of Rs 2 Lakh or/and imprisonment for six months.

The government has been strategizing ways to connect these children to various welfare schemes and educational programmes. Furthermore, the government is also deliberating on a monthly sponsorship assistance scheme for family members who agree to take care of the orphaned child.

While the government is working on measures to quell the potential threats of child trafficking and forced labour in the state, we as elected representatives must facilitate and guide the implementation of various social welfare schemes for our children who have suffered inconsolable trauma and loss.

We have to ensure that the orphaned children are relieved of their educational and health care expenses through student fee waivers, extra coaching facilities, vocational training/skill development and health insurance schemes. MLAs can mobilize funds from MLALADS or CSR and bring policy-level changes to cater to the educational and health needs of the children who have lost either one or both parents during a pandemic. For financial security, we can introduce schemes that offer monthly allowances and a fixed deposit fund to meet their additional financial requirement/living expenses. Linkages with sponsorship scheme and other government schemes must be expedited so that eligible children can receive regular support from the District Child Protection Units for their safety and well-being.

We must spread awareness in our districts and constituencies about the helpline numbers which children and adults can call to report any untoward incidents such as Child Helpline number 1098, Women Helpline 1091 and 181.

Besides support in education and institutional healthcare, we must recognize that the children who have lost their parents during the COVID pandemic have experienced a life-altering trauma.  Some of these children may even have faced some form of abuse at home or online. As public representatives, we have to ensure that the children who have lost both parents or single parent receive adequate counselling support and participate in awareness and sensitization campaigns to understand abuse.

But the most crucial hurdle is to ensure that these children grow up in a hospitable environment. As public leaders, we have to expedite the legal adoption process and review adoption cases through reports from monitoring authorities, i.e., child protection officers. Accordingly, we must deliberate on strategies to strengthen the foster care network in the state and encourage influential families/individuals to step forward in offering financial or educational support to these children for equipping them for their professional future. Alternatively, these families/individuals can also donate funds under Juvenile Justice Fund, which will be used by the government to provide relief to children who need sponsorship or any other support.

As we brace for the third wave, I believe the lessons learnt in the recent second wave is indispensable for bolstering our strategic state covid response plan. Based on expert consultations and forecasts, every district administration is gearing up to upgrade the existing paediatric hospitals and setting up additional dedicated paediatric covid care units. We are also focusing on the rural healthcare infrastructure and hospital management strategies to streamline emergency medical response systems across rural and urban healthcare centres. Prevention through the adoption of COVID appropriate behaviour is crucial at all times, and so we are building awareness while ensuring the availability of masks and other safety gears. We have a short window of recovery that we must utilize to the fullest so that we are in a position to save our children and future generations from the ravages of this global health crisis.

(The author is a BJP MLA representing the Hatia Vidhan Sabha constituency in the Ranchi district of Jharkhand. The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author.)

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