As the second wave of Covid-19 swept across India, Minister for Women and Child Welfare Smriti Irani said on May 25 in a tweet that at least 577 children had lost both their parents between April 1 and May 25.

As news of Covid-19 orphans began to cause concern, several states have announced monetary help and other forms of assistance to them. Congress President Sonia Gandhi urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide free education in Navoday Vidyalayas to them.

Ultimately, on May 29, Modi announced a slew of measures to protect Covid-19 orphans, ranging from support in education to a corpus under the PM Cares fund formed by donations from the public.

While this is commendable, there are several complications. As has been reported, in many cases, even though people have died with coronavirus symptoms, their death certificates do not mention Covid-19 as the cause. Some families, especially in rural areas, may not even obtain death certificates. As a result, it may be difficult for some Covid-19 orphans to prove themselves as such and to benefit from the programmes ostensibly aimed at them.

‘Social orphanhood’

But even as these complications are being discussed, another vital question comes to mind: why are we even differentiating among orphans based on how their parents died? All the issues being raised regarding Covid orphans – loss of parental guidance, psychological trauma of seeing a parent die, economic distress, the need for support in education, increasing vulnerability to child trafficking – are problems associated with all orphans.

It isn’t only children dealing with the loss of both parents who need assistance. Experts also speak of the phenomenon of “social orphanhood”, a situation in which children are left to fend for themselves even though one or both parents may be living. Then there are families in which the breadwinners die, and the surviving adults may not be able to support the child fully.

According to Unicef, the difference in terminology – such as using the term “single orphan” for children who have lost one parent and “double orphan” for those who have lost both – could have concrete implications for policy and programming. A global analysis by the organisation suggests that greater focus should be on a range of factors that render children vulnerable rather than on the concept of orphanhood.

These factors include the family’s ownership of property, the poverty level of the household, the child’s relationship to the head of the household, and the education level of the child’s parents, if they are living. According to Unicef, these are the elements that can help identify both children and their families – whether this term includes living parents, grandparents or other relatives – who have the greatest need for support.

The government does not maintain a database of orphans, even though, according to Unicef estimates, there are perhaps 3 crore such children in the country. Adoption rates are very low; girls are abandoned more than boys; frequent reports of sexual and other crimes emerge from orphanages; many children stay outside the system by working and living on the roads, thus being exposed to exploitation.

According to a study conducted in 2011 by SOS Children’s Village, of all the children in the country who have been left to fend for themselves, only 0.3% have suffered the deaths of both parents. The others have simply been abandoned. The study found out that poverty of a state is directly related to the number of orphans living there.

Right to dignity

Therefore, helping children only if both their parents have died due to Covid-19, still leaves a large number of uncared for children below the radar of government sympathy. It’s difficult to make the case that a child who has been orphaned due to coronavirus requires greater care than other vulnerable children.

The Supreme Court of India has reiterated the philosophy of supporting vulnerable children. According to Justice P Bhagwati, “Right to live with human dignity in Article 21...must include protection of...the tender age of children against abuse. Opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity and no State – neither the Central government nor any state government – has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials.”

Moreover, many provisions of the Directive Principles of State Policy, the principles fundamental in the governance of the country, mention many provisions by which vulnerable children should be protected. The government has a legal, as well as a moral, duty to support all vulnerable children – not just a gift, goodwill or humanitarian gesture. Therefore, the government should create a universal policy for all vulnerable children and not restrict itself to only “Covid orphans”.

Medha Pande is a student of Faculty of Law, Delhi University and has been writing about the socio-legal issues arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic.