BHOPAL, India — The nights are the hardest.
Five-year-old twins Ruhi and Mahi go to sleep late. In the dark, they often wake up crying or seized with fear.
In the morning, their great-uncle dresses them and combs their hair. They ask him the same question over and over: Where are our parents?
Your mom and dad are with the doctors, he tells the girls. They’re at the hospital.
“All I’m saying is mommy is praying to God.”
The truth is too difficult for him to speak. Ruhi and Mahi’s parents are both dead, swept away in a matter of days during the calamity of India’s second wave of coronavirus cases.
The girls’ father, Mohan, known for his helpful nature and devotion to his daughters, died on April 30, his lungs straining on a ventilator at a government-run hospital in this central Indian city.
Three days later their mother, Rita, died at home in a rooftop room with pale yellow walls, crushed by sickness and grief. Her daughters were asleep nearby.
“They’ve left these two girls alone in the world.”
The full severity of India’s recent wave of infections — now receding at last — is hard to grasp. In April and May, the virus overwhelmed hospitals and killed nearly 170,000 Indians, according to official statistics. Experts believe the true figure is far higher.
Perhaps no phenomenon encapsulates the nation’s losses like the number of children orphaned in the surge. What happened to Mohan and Rita’s daughters is not unique: Nearly 600 children in India have lost both parents to covid-19, said Smriti Irani, the government minister for women and child development, in a tweet last month.
Even that figure may understate the tragedy. Across India, more than 3,600 children have been orphaned as a result of covid and other causes since the start of the pandemic, according to an affidavit filed this month by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Although India’s situation is extreme, the country is far from alone. The pandemic has killed parents of young children around the world. Researchers in the United States used Census Bureau data to estimate that about 43,000 American children had lost a parent to covid since March of last year. There were also families in the United States where both parents died.
In India, the ferocity of the second wave left hospitals too full to treat the sick. Many died because they could not get enough oxygen or other treatment, leaving their families with the unanswerable question of whether their relatives might have been saved with proper care.
Most of the children orphaned in the surge are staying with relatives. A small minority have been placed in institutional care, say child protection authorities. The perils are myriad: Children who lose their parents are at higher risk of depression, dropping out of school and being exploited, experts say.
In April, messages began to circulate on social media allegedly seeking adoptive parents for children whose parents had died of covid. The appeals became so widespread that the authorities issued a warning that such direct adoptions are illegal and could be used for child trafficking.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced that the national government would cover educational expenses and provide health insurance to children orphaned by covid, as well as set aside funds they could access upon turning 18. In such trying times, Modi said, according to an official statement, “it is our duty as a society to care for our children.”
“Whatever dreams their parents had for them, I’m going to try my best to help the girls achieve them.”
Identical twins with tiny wrists and large brown eyes, Mahi and Ruhi are living with their mother’s uncle and their extended family in the narrow lanes of Bhopal’s old city. When Ruhi, older by minutes, is asked who is her best friend, she doesn’t hesitate. “Mahi!” she exclaims while hunched over a coloring book.
That morning, Ruhi woke up and told her great-uncle, Subhash Raikwar, that she had seen her parents during the night. She knew it was them, she said, because she could see their faces above the door to the bedroom. (The Washington Post is withholding the girls’ family name to protect their privacy.)
“When they tell us things like this, it makes our hair stand on end,” Subhash said. “How could this have happened? Will they ever be able to forget this?”
A day earlier, the girls had returned to their home on the outskirts of town for the first time since their parents became sick. They were excited to see the neighbor’s dog and the rickety swing across the street where they used to go with their father, who had worked as an electrician in a nearby factory earning about $250 a month.
“We never imagined that everything would get destroyed so fast.”
Mohan and Rita both belonged to a tribal community whose traditional occupation is fishing, and they were married in 2009. For years, they tried to have children. The girls were born in 2016.
Home was a tiny rented room. A calendar distributed by a Hindu religious group hangs on one wall. The page is turned to April, the month that changed everything. That’s when Mohan, who was in his early 40s, began to cough. Days later, he had trouble breathing. By then the virus was racing across India, infecting hundreds of thousands of people a day.
Mohan’s health worsened on April 25, and that night, the oxygen saturation in his blood dropped to a dangerous level. Rita’s brother managed to get Mohan admitted to Hamidia Hospital, a collection of mustard-and-white buildings near Bhopal’s historic mosque. Rita, 40, also was showing symptoms of covid. She and both girls tested positive for the coronavirus two days later. Ruhi developed a cough, but her sister remained unscathed.
Before Mohan was placed on a ventilator, he told Subhash that he was worried for his children. He asked whether he could be moved to a private hospital to get better treatment, but no beds were available. Mohan died late on April 30. He was cremated the following morning, one of 82 coronavirus victims that day at the city’s main Bhadbhada crematorium.
Rita, who had a persistent cough and labored breathing, came with the girls to her childhood home, three narrow interconnected houses near one of Bhopal’s several lakes where her mother, an elderly widow, still lives. Rita isolated herself in a room on the roof with only one small window, too high to see outside. She didn’t want to eat or talk to anyone, her relatives said.
The night before Rita died, she insisted that the girls come upstairs and sleep in the room with her. Alka Raikwar, 45, one of Rita’s aunts, said she spoke to her niece after midnight. Alka asked whether she was eating and urged her to be strong for her children. If Rita was having trouble, Alka said, they would take her to the doctor.
The next morning, Rita was unresponsive. The girls tried to wake her. Subhash checked her pulse: nothing. He called an ambulance. Emergency personnel arrived and pronounced her dead.
For the second time in three days, members of the family returned to the crematorium. There were crowds and they had to wait. Mamtesh Sharma, an official with the crematorium trust, said the facility had never witnessed such scenes in its 70-year history. “It was house full,” he said, pointing to charred spots on the concrete where bodies had been burned for a lack of proper wooden pyres.
‘God has given me the chance to help.’
Bhopal is a city of tranquil lakes and crumbling palaces. In 1984 it was the scene of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, when toxic gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned at the time by Union Carbide, an American firm.
At the height of the second coronavirus wave, people were so afraid to step outside that it was as if something poisonous was in the air, Subhash said. “There was that kind of fear in people’s hearts,” he said. No matter the sorrow, neighbors were unwilling to help neighbors.
Ruhi and Mahi’s parents were not the only losses suffered by the family. Subhash, 45, is the youngest of seven brothers. (Ruhi and Mahi’s grandfather was the second eldest.) His eldest sister and one of her sons also died of covid this year.
Subhash makes a living selling fish and owns a printing press. He also is active in local politics. Now he is the girls’ main caregiver during the day. He helps them bathe and gives them breakfast. His wife Rekha is a laboratory technician and returns from work in the afternoon. The couple have two sons, 18 and 8.
All Subhash wants to do is fulfill the aspirations of the girls’ parents — a good school, a high-quality education, a chance to move up in the world. Mahi says she wants to be a doctor. Ruhi would like to be a police officer.
On a recent morning, Mahi had a smudge of baby powder visible on her neck after taking a bath. Her hair had been gathered carefully into a ponytail with a fuzzy purple elastic band. Ruhi had a matching yellow elastic band in her hair.
If she were at home with her parents, Ruhi said, there would be “masti” — lots of fun. She would go to the park with her father and fly on the swing, she said, or walk to a nearby temple.
Subhash doesn’t know how long he will keep telling Ruhi and Mahi that their parents are at the hospital. He hopes the twins will gradually understand that they aren’t coming back. The girls already hear from their cousins that their mom and dad are with God. But Subhash cannot bring himself to say it.
Ravi Mishra contributed to this report.