Field Notes: The Pandemic’s Forgotten Death Files & Orphans


On a chilly late-November afternoon in Pune, I reached a rather desolate building. After three not-so-productive interviews, I sat down in what I was told was the office of a man who would have crucial information about a story I was struggling with. 

As I quietly waited on a shaky plastic chair for my interview subject, I noticed folders bundled up in discoloured pieces of cloth—the kind often used to tie laundry. Something was written on them with black and blue permanent markers. I took a closer look.

“Death report old file,” some of them read. I realised file stacks bundled up one against one another filled up every corner of the long corridor. They were Covid-19 death records.

In October 2022, I was awarded the Without Borders Media fellowship 2022-23 by the international humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for a story that I hoped to follow: one of the most under-reported aftermaths of the pandemic—children who lost one or both of their parents to Covid-19. 

Over the next three months, I travelled across Delhi, Pune and Maharashtra to report on the ongoing crisis that is Covid orphans. There are, even by the government’s conservative—and disputed—estimates, more than 150,000 such nationwide. 

Yet, the more people I met, the more I realised a peculiar fact: no one wanted to talk any more about the trauma families across India faced during what was perhaps one of the country’s deepest humanitarian crises ever. 

In what many would like to believe to be a post-pandemic world, no one wanted to revisit the last two-and-a-half years. And even if they did, they wanted to “get past it and focus on the future” as soon as they could. 

However, the long pauses and hushed voices every time I met a guardian of a Covid-orphan showed how no matter how much we try, the collective tragedy persists more than ever. For such children, it had only intensified, because of their enduring, unaddressed trauma. 

‘Moving on’, for these children, was not an option:this is the message that I wanted to convey with my reportage. 

Over weeks of intensive fieldwork, I interviewed government officials, lawyers, social workers, counsellors, children and their guardians. With a focus on mental health and trauma-related aid, my primary aim was to understand how much assistance had reached children orphaned by Covid.  It emerged quickly that they were hugely underserved and need dramatically more consistent, robust and accessible assistance. 

As I write this, I can only hope we see more reportage of an issue that we ought to urgently focus on across India’s states, districts, cities and villages. 

The pandemic left many kinds of victims. They cannot be abandoned or forgotten. They are not files.

You can read Oishika Neogi’s full story here.

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