Counting gifts for children
Despite being a low-risk group, children had been the worst sufferers in 2021 — let's collectively ensure new year brings new hope for them
For Vishakha (name changed), a 15-year-old girl in Varanasi, 2021 had started on a cautiously optimistic note. By then the first wave of the novel COVID-19 pandemic had tapered down and the entire country was desperately hoping that COVID-19 had finally taken leave.
But then, it struck back, and the delta variant wreaked havoc for the next few months, bringing the healthcare system to its knees.
Almost simultaneously, came the faint ray of hope — vaccinations. Vishakha was quick to realise that this was the only way forward. If the potency of the deadly virus was to be blunted, it would have to be with vaccines. She wasted no time in spreading the word among the adult residents in her slum.
Change began at home, as she influenced her naana and naani (grandparents), both above 70, to go to the nearest vaccination centre and receive their first jab. And she didn't stop at that.
She was one among the firsts who came forward to spread the message around, with the field workers of Shambhunath Singh Research Foundation (SRF), a local non-profit partnered with CRY, visiting her slum with the #VaccineMitra campaign.
Vishakha's is just one of the countless tales of positivity, hope and proactive participation that children have shown this year. It's been tough on them — away from school and friends, locked down at home for close to two consecutive years, surviving bereavement as many lost their parents — and the list goes on and on.
Schools reopened, but…
The biggest moment of joy for children in 2021, perhaps, came in September when schools reopened, though partially, under strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols. It was as if the doors of happiness had finally opened.
The children of higher classes started going to school, and the students of elementary and primary classes became hopeful that they too would be able to follow in their footsteps soon. But with the new threat posed by the omicron variant, we are yet to know how early we can have our children – all of them – back at school.
Experiences from the ground have shown how the prolonged lack of socialisation hugely impacted children's mental health and psycho-social well-being. Much has also been said about the fact that home is ideally the safest place for a child, but the lockdown months have underscored how many of them suffered from abuse and violence at home.
There have been other pain points, too. From the very beginning of COVID-19 and the closure of schools, we had fears that children would be going to bear the brunt of it. True, that the child population was not among the biggest victims of the pandemic in terms of contracting the disease, but its impacts on children were manifold.
They were majorly hit by the closure of schools, disruption of health and nutrition services and the bigger worry was that the losses incurred would have long-term consequences for the collective wellness of the society at large.
We came across many stories of school drop-outs, especially among the marginal and underserved sections. Many parents had obviously realised the importance of an 'extra pair of hands' for family chores and decided to keep their children out of school. There were many cases of child marriages too, where their parents had decided to spare themselves of 'one extra mouth' to feed.
Also, prolonged school closure and disruption of midday meals left a huge section of children in the lurch – losing out on acquiring knowledge and missing the nutritional benefits. As these children slowly get back into structured learning now, it's time to ensure that they don't lag behind further and get enough motivation and support to make up for what they have lost, for no fault of theirs.
Apart from schools, many other child-centred services witnessed major disruptions during the past two years, including Anganwadi and immunisation programmes. Evidence from previous crises suggest that such services suffer a lot during difficult times, and experiences in the COVID times were no different.
Why are child-centred services the first to get snapped off? How, as a society, can we ensure that disasters and crisis situations don't claim these services? These questions need to be sorted out quickly, if, as a country, we want to reach the last-mile child and script an inclusive journey to prosperity.
No more 'COVID-19 orphans', please…
The pandemic took away from many children those they loved the most — their parents — without any forewarning. More than one lakh children have lost one or both parents to the pandemic so far, according to data on the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights' Bal Swaraj portal.
Let us not forget that this is much more than just a number. This is about losing as many unfulfilled dreams as well. And yes, let us stop echoing the insensitive hashtag culture while naming them #COVIDOrphans. Let us remember that children who have lost their parents to COVID-19 will have to carry this cruel identity throughout their lives.
Living on hope
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that children within 15 to 18 will be the next batch of recipients of the COVID-19 vaccines. Nothing could have been more welcome. But the younger kids of the country need to be vaccinated as well.
Let's hope the New Year rings in positive news related to the beginning of vaccination for all children, across all age groups, and let Vishaka and others like her spearhead the campaign to remove even the tiniest of doubt and the last shred of hesitancy from the minds of parents, if there is any.
What's over is done with, let us hope 2022 bears well for India's children, ensuring that they can enjoy a happy, healthy and safe childhood. Let us not forget that much of the progress in terms of child development that India made in the past couple of decades have taken a hit. It's time for all to come forward and join hands as India builds back better.
It's said that it takes a village to raise a child. What else could be a better slogan for all of us for the next year that knocks at the door? DTE
Views expressed are personal