Surviving a catastrophe requires resilience of the spirit, not just the body. Studies on the effect of the coronavirus wave on the Covid-19 generation children conceived, carried or born in the world around these times portend an alarming future for the new bunch. The template for the emotional and social wellbeing of these children is already being formed as alienation, parental job losses, deaths of family members, educational disruptions, domestic violence, forced home confinement, sexual violence, trafficking, child marriage, excessive digital exposure and warped human interactions have plunged the children of India, and humanity as a whole into an almost insurmountable crisis.
A UNICEF report in March projects that when audited, India will have the highest number of Covid-19 related deaths among children under five, and the highest number of maternal deaths in South Asia in 2020; 29,0000 such mortalities have already occurred in the region. “The number of children who are hungry, isolated, abused, anxious, living in poverty and forced into marriage has increased. At the same time, their access to education, socialisation and essential services, including health, nutrition and protection, has decreased. The signs that children will bear the scars of the pandemic for years to come are unmistakable,” says a worried Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
What kind of India has the Covid-19 generation been born into?
CHILDLINE 1098, the 24-hour toll-free helpline of the Ministry of Women and Child Development for children in distress, saw a 50 percent increase from regular call volumes in 2020. It received 4,60,000 calls in 21 days from March 20 to April 10, pleading for protection. Of these, 6,355 calls concerned child marriage, and 898 of these were averted despite the lockdown, as reported by the ministry. Sixteen-year-old Sunita Kumari did not receive help on time. Her father summoned her back to the village when he learnt about the worsening pandemic situation in Delhi. She was married off to a much older man within a week. In two weeks, her husband lost his job as a construction worker. He took away Kumari’s money—all of which she had saved working as domestic help. He took to alcohol and began losing his temper. One such episode of domestic violence left Kumari with ossicular chain damage. She cannot hear from one ear now.
The Cage Syndrome
Covid-19 has impacted relationships and social interactions among children and adolescents the most. Dr Anuneet Sabharwal, psychiatrist and founder of The Happy Tree, a de-addiction and mental health hospital in Delhi, has dealt with two separate cases of attempted suicide by adolescents who broke up with their girlfriends during the lockdown. He blames the lack of social interaction that makes children feel caged up at home. Even babies and toddlers are keenly feeling the effects of their parents’ mental breakdowns.
Neha Arora confesses to having had more than one meltdowns in the recent past that she took out on her six-month-old baby. It was not in her control, she says. “My husband, a merchant navy officer, is mostly away from home. My in-laws are in a different city. I was hugely dependent on my mother, who lives close by, for my children’s care needs. But since they’re both in their 70s, we decided to not visit each other given the rapid spread of the virus. I am now left with two demanding babies, a house to clean, food to cook, and a huge emotional vacuum,” shares Arora, who resides in Delhi and works as a secretary at an embassy (that she didn’t want to name). She then spoke to a psychologist friend, who taught her stress-management tools. It’s been three weeks and Arora has been less impulsive.
The risk of postpartum depression for new mothers has always been high but has grown substantially during the pandemic. The anxiety, burnout and acute loneliness they feel are transmitted to their children. Language or speech impediments or delay in developing appropriate social skills are becoming increasingly common. Dr Ruchi Sharma, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Manipal Hospital, Dwarka, Delhi, says it is important to be aware of maternal mental health issues. This can only be done by giving mothers special attention after delivery, and looking out for abnormal behaviour changes while extending tacit support.
The Learning Crisis
Noida-based 17-year-old Aviral Chowdhury (name changed) goes to a boarding school far from home. School shut due to the pandemic, and once back with his family, the restrictions put a full-stop to physical activity and social interaction that were the fulcrum of his life. Ironically, studies, never Aviral’s strong suit, were the only outlet to interact with the outside world since going online. Over time, the teenager grew moody and anxious, refusing to study. His mother, Simar, consulted a Reiki healer without his knowledge, to help him focus on his studies and deal with his anger issues. She feels he is calmer now.
Delhi-based certified healing practitioner Anisha Dutt has seen many such cases since last year. By setting positive intentions and clearing negative energies, she has helped several children to concentrate better on online lessons, deal with screen fatigue. While some believe in the power of alternate healing, most parents choose to consult mental health professionals like Sinchita Bhattacharya, consultant psychologist and wellness coach based in the national capital. She says parents too are experiencing mental health disorders arising from the pandemic. “There is more domestic violence, with fathers drinking excessively to reduce stress,” she says.
An ORF study found that the closure of 1.5 million schools and lockdowns in 2020 brought chaos to the lives of 247 million students of elementary and secondary schools. More than six million girls and boys were already not attending school before the pandemic. Since only 24 percent of Indian households have internet access, online education serves the needs of only one in four children.
But a study published in April 2020 in the prestigious medical journal Lancet had estimated that by closing schools, Covid-19-related deaths could be brought down by two to four percent. India closed down schools on March 16, 2020, and adopted online learning. However, an April 2020 survey of 23 states among schoolchildren in Class I to XII found that only 43.9 percent of them had access to smartphones, another 43.9 percent to basic phones, while a significant 12.0 percent did not have access to either smartphones or basic phones. Rural parents and teachers lack digital literacy. The story is not pleasant in households with internet access though. A survey of parents of children aged five to 15 years in Delhi saw 54 percent admitting that their offspring were spending on an average five hours more on their smartphones and computers daily—84 percent of parents were concerned about this.
Research has shown that reduced physical activity has caused health problems, such as low muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness, weight gain, psychosocial issues, educational underachievement and eye issues. These have a ripple effect that reaches well into adulthood. A UN report in August 2020 predicted a massive dropout rate due to prolonged school closure—23.8 million children and youth will either leave school or not have access to one in 2021; girls, especially poor, disabled or rural, will be the most affected. On World Children’s Day in November 2020, UNICEF conducted a panel discussion on the ‘Impact of Covid-19 Crisis on the Lives of Children in India’. Through community-based monitoring of select samples in 12 districts of seven states, they concluded that one in four mothers from lower-income groups was unsure about her child going back to school, indicating the long-term disruption in universal literacy campaigns.
Sexual and Emotional Abuse
Isolation and sudden poverty have made children the most vulnerable section of the population. The Indian Journal of Practical Pediatrics quoted a recent study by the Aarambh India Initiative of NGO Prerana and ADM Capital Foundation, which found that the lockdown exacerbated the distress of the families of child sexual abuse survivors. Of the 127 families interviewed in Mumbai, the majority were poor. Income loss due to the pandemic has brought more trauma to parents dealing with the fragile emotional and physical state of their abused children in the absence of a functioning social support structure. CHILDLINE India Foundation reported a 50 percent increase in the number of calls reporting abuse three lakh compared to two lakh before the lockdown. Home confinement enabled abusers to sexually exploit their victims, especially incest, since the quarantine placed the children and their abusers in close proximity.
The lockdown also disrupted government and private efforts to prevent child marriages. Research has shown that a one-year delay in girl bride protection measures could result in 13 million more child marriages during 2020-2030 globally, aided by the economic crisis. Covid-19’s financial shock has compelled poor households to reduce their family size and save money by marrying off their daughters. Government data reveals an increase in domestic violence after the pandemic, caused by health anxieties, income loss, home quarantine, and lack of mobility. Last year, CHILDLINE received 92,000 calls reporting child abuse and violence during the first 11 days of the lockdown alone. Cybercrimes, including cyberbullying against urban children, have rocketed due to their prolonged exposure to the internet and social media. Due to fear of the virus, child protection agencies have reduced monitoring, and teachers cannot detect signs of ill-treatment since the schools are shut.
Another matter of concern that emerged is conflicts between couples and instances of spousal abuse. Both increased during the pandemic. Separations were common. This had terrible effects on the children who were already feeling isolated. “Parents’ separation leads to tremendous emotional tension inside the child’s mind, which results in behavioural, and in some cases, even cognitive problems,” says Priyanka Joshi, founder of Sanity Daily, a mental health portal. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) conducted a study, published in the Supplemental Research Bulletin in September 2018, focusing on the effects of natural disasters on children.
It unequivocally concluded that the youth is more vulnerable to the damaging effects of natural disasters, and can develop PTSD, depression, addiction to substances, and anxiety disorders, among others. However, the study also observed that children have a tendency to be more resilient, and are likely to have a successful recovery and heal with correct and timely intervention. Apart from mental and physical health issues, natural disasters also lead to learning problems and disabilities, as noted in an article published on the Society for Research in Child Development website in August 2020. Natural disasters like Covid-19 lead to children missing school and living with heightened levels of anxiety, which can alter brain anatomy and functioning, inhibiting learning and memory processes too.
Suffering on the Streets
The ORF study reported increased domestic workload among children and adolescents. A survey conducted in Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh concluded that of the 42 percent of the working population aged between 15 and 24 years, adolescent girls at 52 percent bore the brunt. Employment loss among migrant parents is a significant economic and psychological stress point. Street children have been worst hit by the pandemic since they lack social and economic protection. According to data released by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), about 70,000 children are living on Delhi’s streets alone. During the lockdown, they had no place to go. About 3.7 lakh orphaned children live in more than 9,500 child care institutions in India.
Due to Covid-19, adoptions and placements in foster care have dropped—only 4,027 children (0.01 percent) were adopted—and official foster care figures are unavailable. Hence, most children will live in orphanages until they turn 18, the age when they will be left to face the world on their own. With the coronavirus having disrupted social growth, their ability would be seriously impaired. About 50 percent of such children come from destitute families. The ongoing pandemic is expected to increase this number. The United Nations estimates that 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty due to the Covid crisis. For children of migrant labourers, parental destitution led to further deprivation and more mental and physical abuse. NGOs and good samaritans are stepping up where they can.
Delhi-based organisation Wishes & Blessings, which works for the upliftment of the underprivileged sections of society, distributed ration kits and offered counsel to slum children. Roma Gupta Sinha, Delhi-based author and communication skills coach, gifted smartphones to the children of her domestic help to enable their online studies. But with classes suspended due to lack of internet connectivity or absence of willing teachers, many of these devices are of no use. Dr Sunita Gandhi, founder of start-ups GETI and GCPL that specialise in training teachers, asserts that a large section of children, adolescents and adults will continue to remain illiterate in 2030 and beyond. Her ‘Global Dream Project’ is designed specifically for such learners to deal with the literacy crisis ahead.
Looming Health Emergency
Initially, the coronavirus was kinder to children but the double mutant is now infecting younger people and kids more, according to AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria. Since schoolchildren have begun socialising again, and they are low on antibodies, due to home quarantine, they are contracting the virus. The adverse effects of uncertain food security and health issues among children are daunting. According to a Lancet study, malnutrition could have been responsible for 7,06,000 deaths out of the 10,40,000 deaths of children aged under five in India in 2017.
The numbers are projected to go up after Covid-19. Government efforts towards menstrual hygiene awareness were set back during the initial phase of the nationwide lockdown. The production of sanitary napkins was disrupted, being not on the list of the essential items then. According to a 2020 survey, 58 percent of girls under 18 years of age had little or no access to sanitary pads. They had to resort to unhygienic methods, thereby exposing themselves to toxic shock syndrome, reproductive tract infections and vaginal diseases. Covid-19 has doomed the food and health security of young children in India, where every third child is affected. Child nutrition programmes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and mid-day meal schemes have been disrupted, thereby impacting rural areas where more than half of children are the beneficiaries.
The researchers note that children and adolescents, who are unable to fully comprehend the scope of the virus disaster, do not communicate their angst to adults. The pandemic has deprived them of school and playgrounds, adversely affecting their socialisation and sporting activities. A large proportion developed anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, and loss of appetite. Indian parents place a premium on excellence in exams, usually overlooking talents their children may have.
In the past year, therefore, exam-time anxiety increased manifold. Dr Ted Mockrish, Head of School, Canadian International School, Bengaluru, believes that this is an opportunity for the examination system to be re-assessed. He says, “With two years of cancelled exams from IGCSE and the IB, we have a chance to make changes that were not possible earlier. Long-term papers to create a portfolio that illustrates student growth over many years versus a single sitting in an exam is a more comprehensive method of learning.”
Many frustrated parents of school-going children think that the divide between parent and teacher has dissolved completely. Noida-based Heena Sodhi Khera, founder of the networking community Queen’s Brigade, and mother to boys aged three and five, is most emphatic in calling schools of North India ‘money-making institutions’. The refusal of most schools to reduce fees despite conducting classes virtually sparked off a debate among parents last year. Those who incurred business losses were offered rebates or easy EMI payment options, but this courtesy was not extended across the board. “It is not the job of parents to pay the salaries of teachers.
That is the school’s responsibility and many schools possess reserves which they deny having, choosing to burden the parents. We have paid fees, bought laptops, accessories, art and supplies, and supervised our children’s learning at home. This made us spend more money over and above the school fees,” Khera bristles with anger. Says 16-year-old Adhiraj Singh, a student of a Delhi boarding school: “This year has taught me a lot about myself and how I react to the worst situations in life. But it has been difficult to deal with everything without my friends. I miss them the most. Even in bad times, as long as we are together, we have fun and make the most of it. This year has been awful for people my age.”
The Covid-19 generation needs help. The pandemic’s worst disasters have taught us that it is better to prepare early. Now is the time to save the future.
NO CHILD’S PLAY
A paper published in the Indian Journal of Practical Paediatrics points out several alarming factors affecting children.
Lockdown prevents scheduled immunisations from taking place, leading to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Several e-platforms have been launched by the government to make education accessible to everyone, but these may not cater to children with special needs.
Medical access and treatment of chronic and acute medical/surgical non-Covid conditions is hampered.
There has been a significant increase in child abuse.
Children living on the streets are deprived of access to food and healthcare.
THE RIGHT PRESCRIPTION
Tips to deal with the psychosocial effects of the pandemic on children
Sinchita Bhattacharya Consultant Psychologist and Wellness Coach
1. Reboot your mind space by practicing self-care every day, by being mindful on all three fronts: mental, physical and nutritional. This could include breathing exercise/pranayama/meditation for as little as 10-11 minutes or recite a chant or shlokas etc., 30-45 minutes of yoga, skipping, dancing, walking and also learning to be mindful about food choices.
2. Help children develop interpersonal skills, teach them to connect with family and friends virtually and also learn to appreciate and support each other.
3. Ensure family time to share experiences, encourage reading books and writing journals, watch shows together or play board games. Engage children in activities as these help them talk.
4. Help them explain their emotions and reactions, and also support them in developing a problem-solving approach.
5. Practice time away from the news and social media.
Dr. Farah Adam Family Physician and Bestselling Author
1. Practice journaling to express gratitude.
2. Reminisce about good old days.
3. Accept the new normal.
4. Get exposure to the sun.
5. Talk to your partner daily and take stock of how their day was to keep the connection strong.
6. Find a workout you enjoy and practice regularly.
Dr Ruchi Sharma Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Manipal Hospital, Dwarka, Delhi
1. Reduce screen time for children and increase your interaction with them.
2. Engage in quality playtime with physical toys rather than online games or videos.
3. Encourage eye- and full-body exercises to avoid weight gain.
4. Special eye-exercise to try with your child: Hold your pointer finger a few inches away from your eye, focus on your finger, slowly move your finger away from your face, holding your focus, look away for a moment, into the distance, focus on your outstretched finger and slowly bring it back toward your eye, look away and focus on something in the distance. Repeat three times.
Cindy Ann D’Silva Parenting Influencer and Belly Dance Coach
1. Don’t stress about household chores.
2. Establish a routine and ask everyone in the family to help.
3. Ensure you get me-time.
Dr Rashmi Mantri Founder and Chairperson, BYITC International
1. Maintain a routine with regular exercise for the body and the mind.
2. Practice mindfulness and meditation.
3. Develop new hobbies and adapt the techniques learnt to build confidence and leadership skills.
4. Participate in knowledge transfer partnership across the globe, by joining online meet-ups.
5. Write papers and articles, and focus on improving spelling and vocabulary.
6. Learn skills that enhance early age entrepreneurship through logical reasoning quizzes and puzzles and math techniques.
Resources & Helplines
1. Ministry of Health & Family Welfare Covid-19 Helpline Number: +91-11-23978046 Toll Free: 1075 Helpline Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. NCPCR SAMVEDNA (Sensitising Action on Mental Health Vulnerability through Emotional Development and Necessary Acceptance). Toll-Free Helpline Number for Children suffering from impacts of Covid-19: 18001212830 (from Monday to Saturday, 10 am - 1 pm and 3 pm to 8 pm)
3. UNICEF Child Line Psychosocial Support Manual for Children During Covid-19: https://www.unicef.org/india/media/3401/file/PSS-COVID19-Manual-ChildLine.pdf
4. Child Line Counsellor Support number: 1098
5. Domestic Violence Helpline number: 1091
6. Non-screen time resource for young children: www.sesamestreet.org/caring
7. Covgen Research Alliance: Focussing on children around the world that are conceived, carried and born during this time, and are being called the Covid generation (COVGEN). The website contains the latest publicly available instruments to keep you informed about COVGEN activities around the world, and by providing a platform for new collaborations and research activities to emerge organically:
“This year has taught me a lot about myself and how I react to the worst situations in life. But it has been difficult to deal with everything without my friends. I miss them the most. Even in bad times, as long as we are together, we have fun and make the most of it. This year has been awful for people my age.”
Adhiraj Singh, 16 Student of a Delhi boarding school
“This is an opportunity for the examination system to be re-assessed. With two years of cancelled exams from IGCSE and the IB, we have a chance to make changes that were not possible earlier. Long-term papers to create a portfolio that illustrates student growth over many years versus a single sitting in an exam is a more comprehensive method of learning.”
Dr Ted Mockrish Head of School, Canadian International School, Bengaluru
“Parents’ separation leads to tremendous emotional tension inside the child’s mind, which results in behavioral, and in some cases, even cognitive problems.”
Priyanka Joshi Founder of Sanity Daily, a mental health portal
An ORF study found that the closure of 1.5 million schools and lockdowns in 2020 brought chaos to the lives of 247 million students of elementary and secondary schools