Covid-19 Outbreak: Little souls left exposed | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 31, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:03 AM, March 31, 2020

Covid-19 Outbreak: Little souls left exposed

Orphans, street children now even more vulnerable for lack of hygiene products, basic medical services

As the coronavirus gains a foothold in the country, the increasing vulnerability of millions of orphaned and destitute children remains largely unaddressed.

Hundreds of thousands of street children lack awareness about hygiene practices and those living in orphanages don't have access to hygiene products and basic medical services.

According to an estimate by the non-governmental organisation SOS Children's Villages, there are around 4,400,000 orphaned children in Bangladesh.

However, the government's department of social services knows of around 2,00,000 kids who live in 85 government-run children's homes or "Shishu Paribar", and 4,000 private orphanages.

Homeless and orphaned children who live in the streets and in informal settlements remain beyond the purview of government monitoring during this health crisis.

Moreover, as the cities are increasingly deserted with movement restricted, these children -- who depend on busy streets for their survival -- are losing their source of income.

Young boys like Md Shujon Mia, a 13-year-old helper on a human haulier at Farmgate, collect fares from passengers and assist drivers. They earn between Tk 150 and Tk 200 a day.

As the human hauliers are off the roads amid the government-imposed public transport shutdown to curb the spread of the virus, the vehicle owners have told these children to go home.

"I don't know where to go now. Most of us used to stay in the garage of our vehicles. I lost my parents a long time ago and many of my friends are just like me. We are requesting our landlords to allow us to continue staying in the garage."

Saiful Islam, a friend of Shujon, said, "With our meagre savings, we can eat for the next two to three days.

"If we cannot work on our vehicles after that, we will starve."

The boys have little idea of the virus. "We cannot afford a square meal, how can we buy soap or masks? Our ustads [drivers] told us that the coronavirus will affect only rich and bad people. So, we are not worried about it."

The mass awareness of hygiene practices is not reaching these children who cannot stay at "home", interact with a lot of people regularly, and don't have access to basic hygiene products.

"We have set up hand-washing booths in different areas of Dhaka such as Mirpur and Abdullahpur, and in Sholoshohor railway station in Chattogram," said Dr Asma Akhter, a volunteer of Bidyanondo Foundation, a non-profit organisation working for vulnerable children.

"Due to the shortage of masks in the market, we are manufacturing our own masks and distributing those to destitute children," she said.

However, she pointed out that a single organisation cannot provide services to such a large number of children and support from other organisations and coordination from the government is necessary.

She particularly called on the government for logistics support because the current shutdown has severely restricted the organisation's mobility and supply.

The government's declaration of the 10-day shutdown till April 4 turned out to be counterproductive for many children living in orphanages and state-run children's homes.

Many orphanages, particularly those attached to educational institutions, such as madrasas, are closed and have asked local guardians to take away the children.

Jesmin Nahar, a ninth-grader in Bauniabadh Islamia Madrasa, lives in the orphanage attached to it. Her only guardian is her maternal uncle and she has been asked to go to his home.

But she is not welcome there.

"My uncle is a rickshaw-puller and he is extremely poor. He could not pay for my education and that is why I was sent to this madrasa [orphanage]," said Jesmin.

"I rarely go to my uncle's home but if I have to, I am not treated well by my aunt and cousins. I prefer staying at the madrasa instead of being maltreated by my aunt."

According to Maulana Abu Sufiyan, a teacher at Bauniabadh Islamia, there are 550 children in the orphanage; up to 20 children stay together in the large rooms and six to 10 children share the smaller rooms.

"Due to the overall shortage of masks and hand sanitisers in the market, we could not adequately provide these to our students," he said. 

"So, we did not want to take risks. Upon suggestion from the local authorities, we asked the guardians to take them home. However, we made sure that the guardians are taking their wards willingly and asked them to treat them well."

At Salimullah Muslim Orphanage, one of Dhaka's oldest orphanages, 70 out of 250 children are still living there. Officials said the institution is short of manpower in dealing with coronavirus prevention and preparedness.

"With our manpower, it is not possible for us to ensure whether the children are washing their hands and maintaining hygiene properly. We also don't have a registered doctor to check our children's health," said Md Jahir Uddin, member of the executive committee of the orphanage.

The orphanage is now seeking donations of hygiene products and medical support for the children from individuals and organisations.

In any case, orphanages are apprehensive of future support in such bleak times.

"Most orphanages in Bangladesh are run by donations from home and abroad. Very few receive government grants," said Professor Abdus Samad, superintendent of Muslim Mission Orphanage in Faridpur.

"Due to the coronavirus outbreak, many donations have stopped. In this deadlocked situation, we are also unable to look for new donors. If the situation does not improve, many orphanages in our country will not be able to feed their children," said Prof Samad.

Many private orphanages rely on collections by its staff in public spaces and before and after prayers at mosques. And it is not surprising that at a time of such uncertainty, private donations are drying up as people worry about their personal finances.

While government-run children's homes enjoy regular funding, they too are affected by a lack of staff at this time.

At Sarkari Shishu Paribar, Tejgaon, a home for female orphans, an "aunt" looks after every 10 girls. There is also a medical assistant and a part-time doctor.

However, due to closure of government offices, caregivers and other staff are not coming to work regularly.

"Under these circumstances, we cannot force our employees to come to work regularly as public transport is off and parts of the city are shut down," said Jharna Zahin, deputy superintendent of the children's home. 

"On the other hand, we have the responsibility to look after these children. In this situation, we are facing difficulties in maintaining hygiene in the home but we are trying our best. It's a difficult situation and we have informed the authorities about it," she said.

Md Sazzadul Islam, deputy director of the Department of Social Services, said, "We have developed a duty roster for the employees. All employees of the children's homes will stay on the premises by rotation."

Apprehending that the situation may deteriorate, the department is planning to develop an emergency helpline for destitute children, with support from Unicef.

"Through this programme, if you see a sick or malnourished child on the streets, you can inform us by dialling 1098, a toll-free number. Our team of social workers will reach out to the child. Unicef will support this program; however, it's still in the planning phase," added Sazzadul.

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