Families are the real heroes of the ‘COVID orphans’ crisis

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Photo: Unsplash/Ian Tormo

Anil* was a pastor living in Pune, India, with his wife, Seema*, and their two daughters. In March 2021, Anil contracted COVID-19. Like too many others in his situation, his health rapidly declined and medical bills began to pile up.

The local church community quickly rallied around Anil and his family with financial support, allowing him to stay in hospital to receive the care he needed. After being placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU), his condition began to improve. He believed he was on the road to recovery and even gave up his place in intensive care to someone else.

Tragically, Anil’s improvements were short-lived. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he died at the end of April 2021.

Anil’s daughters were only 1 and 5 at the time, and suddenly his wife Seema was solely responsible for looking after them. The family was able to stay with Seema’s elderly mother, but they were still in dire need of support.

Upon learning of the situation of Seema and her daughters after Anil’s death, my team and I sprang into action. In 1999, my late husband and I founded Vanitashray with a vision to help care for underprivileged women and children. Since then, our organization has had the honor of caring for, feeding and educating hundreds of women and children in need, and our work has not stopped during the pandemic. We have provided direct and essential support to families impacted by COVID-19 related losses.

Sadly, Anil’s daughters are among an overwhelming number of children who now face the world without one of their caregivers. A new Lancet article reports that approximately 5.2 million children have lost a caregiver to COVID-19. Every child orphaned by COVID-19 experiences unimaginable heartache – and to make matters worse, the tragic reality is that many of these children are also at much higher risk of exploitation, abuse, poverty , trauma and separation from their lives family members.

Yes – living family members. These children may all have lost a primary or secondary caregiver, but the vast majority of them still have parents or other living relatives who are now caring for them. When people hear the term “orphan” they may assume that they are completely on their own, that they need an orphanage to take them in or a whole new family to adopt them.

But the truth is, these children still have families of their own – resilient families who are most likely coping with the loss of a loved one and the challenges that come with taking good care of children in a pandemic-stricken world. .

There are no caregivers better equipped to deal with a child who has experienced a loss than their own family. It may sound like common sense, but after similar crises in the past, compassionate donors around the world have been quick to expand residential care facilities, like orphanages and children’s homes, to help care for the affected children.

Today, when we examine the effectiveness of this response during crises such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we can see that it has separated families and ultimately done more harm than good. This time, we must direct our support towards the families who are mobilizing despite their difficult situation.

I know the harm growing up without a family can cause firsthand. At just ten months old, I was abandoned by my birth mother and placed in an orphanage where I lived for the next 16 years. I have spent many nights crying for a family. My basic material needs were met, but my deeper need for a sense of belonging and loving family was not.

Since then, I have dedicated my life to caring for orphaned and vulnerable women and children like myself. When I started this job, I opened an orphanage, unaware of the alternative forms of care that are available for most children. It wasn’t long before I was faced with the many problems that come with running an orphanage. Raising funds and finding quality caregivers was a struggle, and my frustration drove me to investigate the root causes of family separation in my community.

Poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to education and daytime childcare – I soon discovered these were the reasons children were ultimately separated from their loving families. I also understood that these problems could be solved and families could be strengthened before they were torn apart. I no longer run an orphanage as facilities are no longer needed when families are properly supported.

At Vanitashray, we have had the opportunity to serve many families impacted by loss associated with COVID-19 over the past two years. Working with these families has greatly deepened my admiration for the surviving family members who rose to the occasion and cared for these vulnerable children.

I often think of Seema and her daughters; their strength and determination inspire me. After first contacting them about their situation, our organization was able to step in and respond quickly to their most pressing physical, mental and emotional needs.

I personally contacted Seema, who needed this emotional support in her devastation. Vanitashray was able to provide her family with monthly groceries and direct financial support. We also helped Seema raise funds for her daughters’ education so they could stay in school. She then joined a local WhatsApp group created for bereavement and bereavement support. Seema began volunteering in her community alongside Vanitashray, giving back because she had received so much.

By supporting efforts that empower and bring relief to families dealing with loss – families like Seema’s – we can together create better environments for millions of vulnerable children and their living caregivers. This direct help from people and organizations based in their community is life changing. With our help, they can continue to fight the good fight and more children can stay where they belong, with their families.


*Names have been changed in accordance with the privacy policy.

Anu Silas is the founder and director of Vanitashray, an NGO in India committed to promoting best practices in childcare, family preservation, adoption and the care of the destitute, widows and young girls.

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