In early May, Mumbai resident Akancha Srivastava noticed something unusual. Her social media handles and the chatbot on the website of the nonprofit she runs were swamped with anguished appeals to help children orphaned by India’s ferocious second wave of Covid-19, which has claimed more than 150,000 lives just in the past two months. Veering from her usual work of promoting cyber safety, the thirtysomething engineer assembled a team of eight and set up a WhatsApp Covid helpline for children in distress. Within hours after the number went live on May 3, Bollywood stars, TV personalities, and police chiefs shared it on social media. Panicked messages began flooding in from Delhi, Mumbai, and distant small towns.
“People were asking us to rescue orphaned children, alerting us about illegal adoption rackets and child trafficking,” says Srivastava, whose helpline has been logging 3,500 to 4,000 messages daily. Her team is working with authorities to locate relatives or place children in already overflowing state-run shelter homes. “The children are in shock,” she says. “They don’t understand what’s happening.”
The virus has shattered families and orphaned children around the world. But in India, where 27% of the population of 1.3 billion is under 14, the scale of the crisis is unparalleled. The country had an estimated 350,000 orphans in institutional care going into the pandemic. Now authorities are scrambling to get a count of how many children have been abandoned, either because their parents have been hospitalized or died or because the surviving parent isn’t able to care for them. Priyank Kanoongo, chairman of New Delhi-based National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says his office has directed all district child protection units, child welfare officials, and police check posts to keep track. In a recent tweet, Smriti Irani, India’s women and child development minister, said that since April 1 state governments have reported 577 children who’ve been left parentless by Covid.
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