Three days after their father died of the coronavirus, six-year-old twins Tripti and Pari were found sleeping next to their mother, unaware that she was also a victim.
Thousands of children have lost one or both parents in the new pandemic wave that is devastating India, where there are already millions of orphans. Much is expected of the influx of abandoned minors.
Tripti and Pari, whose names have been changed, are now cared for by their mother’s uncle Ramesh Singh.
“I always tell girls their parents will be coming home soon,” said Singh, whose name was also changed to protect the children’s identities.
“I don’t want to tell them the truth now… they’re young.”
Their heartbroken mother refused to eat well after her husband’s death, which complicated her recovery from the coronavirus, according to Singh.
When the constant knocking on the door went unanswered, relatives splashed water on the girls from the window to keep them open.
They were taken as doctors arrived to declare their mother dead.
While guarding the twins, the pandemic-which claimed thousands of lives a day-left others without a caregiver.
Such children “not only live in an emotional tragedy, they are at risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation”, according to UNICEF India head Yasmin Haque.
In another case, Indian media reported last month the scene of an infant found next to its mother who had died within 48 hours and whose neighbors feared contracting the virus.
The official pandemic toll is more than 270,000 in India, even though the actual number is widely believed to be a much higher number of people dying outside the overburdened medical system.
“We don’t know how many died, especially how many children were orphaned,” said Akancha Srivastava, a cybersecurity expert who launched a coronavirus helpline for children.
However, the evidence online points to a devastating dimension.
Social media appeals are being made for breast milk and food for babies who have lost their mothers.
Some coronavirus orphans have also been put up for illegal social media adoption.
Srivastava reported that his helpline receives at least 300 calls and messages a day.
“Our authorities are overburdened, people are upset. It’s too easy in these circumstances to mistakenly point a child to a trafficking racket or an adoption racket,” he said.
Under Indian law, an orphaned child must be seen by a government official and placed in an institution if there is no relative to look after them.
Smriti Irani, India’s minister for women and child development, this month warned that the unofficial method of adopting orphans COVID-19 is a “trap” and “illegal”.
The AFP news agency said it had received a WhatsApp message, offering a two-year-old girl and a one-month-old boy for adoption.
“Brahmin children,” the message said, suggesting children of high caste Hindus. The contact number has been deleted and is being investigated by authorities.
Children whose parents have died or become ill are sold vegetables on the street, according to the Protsahan India Foundation, a child rights NGO.
“We’re looking at a generation of kids who are in deep distress and facing severe trauma that will lead to devastating adults,” Sonal Kapoor said from the foundation.
He said children have brought more harm to the latest pandemic disease, including cases of incest and sex trafficking.
Dhananjay Tingal from Bachpan Bachao Andolan told AFP that the child welfare organization receives about 50 calls per day, a huge increase from last year.
“This isn’t the first time kids have been orphaned. But at this hour, the child has to face it alone… there are restrictions even on hugging the child in pain, ”he said.
Some civic society groups are urging parents to prepare a backup plan if they are ill.
For Tripti and Pari, at least, their mother’s uncle wanted to formally adopt them.
“They have good parents. I ask that I can help women fulfill their dreams, ”she said.