COVID orphans are a tragic legacy of India s pandemic

COVID orphans are a tragic legacy of India s pandemic
As they sit on the floor of their brightly painted 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, between 4 and 14 years old, and a major pillar of strength for her eldest 20-year-old sister. She s barely had time to grieve.

"My biggest fear is whether I will be able to love them like Mom and Dad or not," said Devika, who is only using her first name over privacy concerns.

"I will earn money; I have faith in myself. My sister will also earn money; I have faith in her. We can do what needs to be done in terms of money, but the absence of parents in their lives is a huge gap to fill, how can we ever fill that void?" she said.

They are among at least 577 Indian children who lost both parents to COVID between April 1 and May 25, when India was battling its , according to government figures. But non-government organizations fear that many other orphans -- potentially thousands -- have been missed in the official count due to the difficulty in tracing children who have lost both parents.

Social workers are scrambling to track them down, worried they may be vulnerable to traffickers or end up on the streets if left to fend for themselves.

Just a few months ago, life looked very different for Devika and her family. Devika was focused on studying for a bachelor of education degree, and teaching children in her spare time.

Her father worked as a pandit -- or Hindu priest -- at a temple, and visited homes to perform rituals. He insisted on going out to work, even as cases soared in the capital. Her mother mostly stayed home, taking care of the children, and sometimes helped out at the temple, too.

At the end of April, when India was reporting more than 350,000 daily cases , leaving hospitals overburdened and oxygen in desperately short supply, Devika s 38-year-old mother gave her some worrying news: she had a fever.

Devika tried to isolate the children upstairs, but it was too late. The whole family -- including her 53-year-old father -- developed a fever. Although the children were never screened for COVID-19, Devika s mother later tested positive in hospital.

The children recovered, but their mother s condition deteriorated and getting her proper medical care proved impossible. After visiting three hospitals in one night, Devika eventually found one in a nearby city that would take her mother, although it didn t have oxygen or ventilators.

"We were so helpless. We did whatever we could possibly do. But we failed," she said.

Around the same time, her father was admitted to a Delhi hospital. When her mother died on April 29, Devika didn t have the courage to tell him. He had a phrase he would say a lot to his wife: "Without you, there s no fun in living."

Devika recalled the moment her mother s body was taken to the Delhi hospital where her father was being treated, so he could see her one last time before she was cremated.

"Mom was in the ambulance, Dad came out of the hospital and then he saw. He lowered his eyes, and he didn t say anything," Devika said.
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