Three days after her father died of coronavirus, the six-year-old twins, Tripti and Pari, were found sleeping next to their mother, unaware that she had also become a victim.
Thousands of children have lost one or both parents in the new pandemic wave that ravaged India, where there were already millions of orphans. The prospect of a wave of abandoned children worries many.
Tripti and Pari, whose names have been changed, are now cared for by their mother’s uncle, Ramesh Singh.
“I keep telling the girls that their parents will be back home soon,” said Singh, who has also changed her name to protect the children’s identity.
“I don’t want to tell them the truth now … they’re too young.”
Her heartbroken mother refused to eat properly after her husband’s death, which complicated her recovery from the coronavirus, Singh said.
When repeated knocks on the door went unanswered, relatives threw water at the girls from a window to make them open.
They were taken away when doctors arrived to declare their mother dead.
While the twins are being cared for, the pandemic, which reaches thousands of lives a day, leaves others without a caregiver.
These children “not only experience an emotional tragedy, but are at high risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation,” said Yasmin Haque, UNICEF’s head of India.
In another case, Indian media reported last month about a baby found next to his mother who had been dead for 48 hours and whose neighbors feared contracting the virus.
The official pandemic index is over 270,000 in India, although the actual number is believed to be much higher as many people die outside the overwhelmed medical system.
“We don’t know how many people die, let alone how many children are orphaned,” said Akancha Srivastava, a cybersecurity expert who has launched a helpline for children with coronavirus.
However, online testing points to a devastating scale.
A call is made on social media to get breast milk and food for infants who have lost their mothers.
Some coronavirus orphans are also being put on illegal adoption on social media.
Srivastava said his hotline received at least 300 calls and messages a day.
“Our authorities are overwhelmed, people are upset. In these circumstances, it is extremely easy to misassign a child to a traffic racket or an adoption racket, ”he said.
Under Indian law, an orphan child must be seen by a government official and must be placed in an institution if there are no relatives to care for him or her.
Smriti Irani, India’s minister for women and child development, warned this month that unofficial approaches to adopting COVID-19 orphans are a “trap” and “illegal”.
The AFP news agency said it received a message on WhatsApp, where it offered a two-year-old girl and a two-month-old boy for adoption.
“The Brahmin children,” the message read, suggesting that the children were Hindus of higher caste. The contact number has since been turned off and authorities are investigating.
Children whose parents have died or are sick have been reduced to selling vegetables on the street, according to the Protsahan India Foundation, a child rights NGO.
“We are seeing a generation of children in extreme distress and facing severe trauma who will grow up to become broken adults,” Sonal Kapoor said from the foundation.
He said children were suffering a much greater weight in the latest wave of pandemic, including cases of incest and sex trafficking.
Dhananjay Tingal, of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, told AFP that the child welfare organization received about 50 calls a day, a large increase over last year.
“This is not the first time that children have been orphaned. But this time, the child has to face it all alone … there are inhibitions even to hug the child in pain “, he said.
Some civil society groups have urged parents to prepare a safety plan in case they fall ill.
For Tripti and Pari, at least, their mother’s uncle wants to formally adopt them.
“They had wonderful parents. I hope to be able to help the girls fulfill their dreams, ”he said.