Children, who have lower chances of contracting the virus and very rarely exhibit severe COVID-19 symptoms, were not considered a priority group during this pandemic and thus treated like the adult population – pulled out of their regular environments almost overnight, made to stay at home and expected to migrate their entire lives online. For many children, this meant isolation, neglect and developmental deterioration. And these unintended consequences of the lockdown measures had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable children, who already suffered from the burden of poverty.
At Shanti Ashram and ICPH, we began supporting the care of our children in their homes, in the warmth of their families and in community settings. The most vulnerable children in our service villages that come from mother headed families, families living with HIV, families cared for by grandparents in the absence of (living of deceased) parents, and families living in extreme poverty were prioritised. The focus of our initiative to create a social safety net for these children ranges from Food Security initiatives that provide them with rations and money through Direct Benefit Transfers to volunteering opportunities and internships that engage children cognitively and give them a productive and stimulating way to use their time.
“Children are not the face of the pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.” This statement from a UNICEF policy brief made in March 2020 encapsulated what we were seeing in the field during the early months of the pandemic, and what we continue to see more than one year on. What started as a public health crisis has set off multiple crises – a learning crisis, an economic crisis, a nutritional crisis and a mental health crisis. And the impact of these crises is distributed unequally – the most vulnerable children are bearing the brunt of this pandemic as it compounds existing socioeconomic inequities.
Shanti Ashram and ICPH saw an urgent need to collaborate with local partners to ensure that holistic care was provided to our vulnerable children. The three areas of focus for this initiative have been:
For the poor, whose vulnerability to disease is compounded by their deprivation, we know that poverty, powerlessness and disease combine to form a vicious cycle. Unemployment due to the pandemic was seen disproportionately in the informal sector, which largely employs the poor. And because of the unstable, contractual nature of their work, the vulnerable are also disproportionately at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 because their jobs require them to leave their homes, use public transport and be in close contact with other people. The Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee rightly highlighted their plight in an interview during the pandemic, “the poor are not just losing their livelihood; they are also at a potentially higher risk of losing their lives”.
Shanti Ashram and ICPH understood early in the pandemic that COVID-19 would impact not just children and breadwinners but entire families. Interventions were thus designed to ensure that the entire family was cared for and provided with critical services. This holistic response that prioritises all members of the household has four key areas of focus:
Across India, lakhs of patients with COVID-19 that exhibit mild symptoms or are asymptomatic are bound inside the four walls of their homes, quarantined and alone. They are not only battling the impact of the second wave and the COVID-19 infection, but as families, are facing the stigma of testing positive, the loss of livelihoods and the strain of social isolation.
At Shanti Ashram and ICPH, we have expanded our COVID-19 outreach work to include the holistic care of vulnerable families in home quarantine and the frontline workers who will provide the last mile connectivity. The care we provide will focus on five dimensions of health: physical, nutritional, emotional & mental, spiritual and social. Our aim for this holistic care program is for it to act as a natural bridge between the existing government framework and the vulnerable communities; complementary and locally defined efforts for vulnerable communities are critical to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their health and well-being. As the pandemic continues, so does our commitment to serve those who need it the most.
In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, school closures have not only disrupted learning environments and education but also the health promoting platform schools provided. In low- and lower-middle income countries like India, most public preventive health programmes for children are made available through schools. 220 million children in India rely on the government’s ‘School Health Program’ to provide them with health services ranging from anemia screening to micronutrient management to the provision of mid-day meals in their schools . Over 400 days of school closures in India has meant disruption to these critical preventive health services.
This Shanti Ashram-ICPH initiative will aim to make zinc, vitamin A, multivitamins and deworming tablets available to 2000 vulnerable children across 15 villages following a village-level mapping exercise of vulnerable children in the age-group of 3-18. We will also study the local disruptions of the Government’s public health outreach of micronutrient interventions due to school closures.
Our President, Dr. Kezevino Aram, began vaccine advocacy in November of 2020 with a focused message on the need for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the country. Dr. Aram’s global advocacy stressed on the ethic of solidarity that underpinned the ‘Vaccine for All’ initiative. “Till all of us are safe, none of us are safe” was a refrain in her messages that highlighted the need to make sure that vaccines would reach the most vulnerable populations, whose poverty and lack of access to technology and information would act as barriers to vaccine accessibility. As and when vaccination was made available to healthcare workers and frontline workers in India, the ICPH and the Shanti Ashram staff were vaccinated in batches between January and June 2021. And since vaccination was opened up to the general population, the team at ICPH has organised 16 COVID-19 vaccination sessions for vulnerable populations, elders, and volunteers in partnership with the Government. As of 26th June 2021, 100% of our staff have been vaccinated, and they have facilitated the vaccination of 439 people.
On the 15th of June 2021, Shanti Ashram and ICPH successfully organised our first COVID-19 vaccination clinic in partnership with RAAC, No Food Waste and Small Differences. 326 shots were given to the most vulnerable groups that include single mothers, transgender women, families living with HIV, family members who had lost a loved one to COVID-19 and rural women. Shanti Ashram’s volunteers and our own staff and their families who have all worked so hard through the pandemic were also vaccinated in this camp.
Shanti Ashram and ICPH have created a COVID-19 Taskforce to drive the agenda of ‘Vaccines for All’ forward, with a goal to vaccinate 2,000 vulnerable families by the end of 2021. The Taskforce, in addition to holding more vaccination camps in the future, will also initiate a youth focused campaign to increase the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination amongst young people in our country. Data has also emerged about a troubling gender gap in vaccinations – as of May 31st 2021, 90,095,606 men had been vaccinated compared to 78,271,582 women. Shanti Ashram is committed to ensuring that the women in our immediate service villages have access to vaccinations and have begun awareness campaigns to ensure that women across the country have equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine.