This is a guest post written by Sushil Babu Chhetri, whose fascinating life story has been serialised on this blog (read Part One here).

There are lots of things to be worried about in this era of coronavirus. I talked about some of the issues I have been witnessing here in my hometown in rural west Nepal in my previous blog post. But something that has been on my mind a lot is the effect that this crisis has had and will have on the thousands of vulnerable children growing up in the orphanages and children’s homes in this country. This is an issue that is very personal to me, having grown up as one of those orphanage kids myself.

As I am not in Kathmandu at the moment I have not been able to visit to or check up on the orphanages I know about, as I sometimes do. I have been in contact with many of my friends, however, all of whom are ex-orphanage kids and ex-street kids, and they have been keeping an eye on what is happening there. Many of the abusive orphanage owners whom we knew when we were growing up still run children’s homes. They might have been shut down a few times over the years but they are never prosecuted, they just collect more children together and start again. My friends and I have been talking about how the pandemic must be affecting the children growing up in these conditions.

The first and most obvious thing we are worried about is how easily the infection could spread through orphanages. All around the world the disease has hit hardest in care homes, prisons and other residential institutions. And as we know, kids are terrible at things like physical distancing. The government imposed a lockdown and asked everyone to shelter at home to stop the spread of the virus. But what if your home brings you into contact with hundreds of other children?

I heard from a friend who grew up in an orphanage in Dallu, Kathmandu. The place had already been shut down once and all the kids rescued, but as soon as the situation calmed down the guy just collected more children together and started it back up again. My friend told me there were no added health precautions there at all – no masks, no hand sanitiser, no health checkups, no distancing, nothing.

The next major concern I have had is about orphanages not providing enough care during the lockdown to ensure the kids stay strong and healthy. I spoke to a resident in a children’s home I know and he said that most of the workers have left their positions to be with their own families. That means that the cooking and cleaning is left to kids themselves. On top of this, the educational institutions in Nepal have been shut for months for “homeschooling”, but there is no-one teaching the children in those homes, so they are missing out.

Already before this pandemic hit the majority of orphanages in this country were providing woefully substandard levels of care for the children living in them (in fact the majority of the registered children’s homes in Nepal fail to meet the government’s own minimum standards – and of course there is not even such an assessment for the unregistered homes). Now I dread to think what some of the worst places are like. During the pandemic all government monitoring has stopped, there are no visits from social workers, and outside access is not allowed. In other words, there are now no external checks and balances, no-one to hold orphanage owners to account, no repercussions for abuse.

Most of the institutions in Nepal are completely dependent on local or international donations, but in the midst of this pandemic no-one is in a position to donate anything. Furthermore, the majority of institutions raise money from travellers or volunteers, who have all left and who won’t return for some time.

The situation I can best compare it to is the economic crash of 2008-9. At that time, many children’s homes in Nepal lost their funding sources, and people stopped sponsoring children. Even the very best orphanages had to make drastic cuts to the services they offered their kids, as there just wasn’t money coming in. The financial crisis following this pandemic is likely to be worse than anything else we have experienced, so myself and the other ex-orphanage kids all expect the impact on vulnerable children to be worse this time too.

A friend of mine who grew up in a Christian orphanage in Lalitpur tells me that there is now a chronic food shortage in his place, meaning that the children are just eating once in a day. This is a time when we are all meant to be focussing on nutrition to build up our immunity. I’m worried that the children will be surviving on cheap junk food, or else forced to eating stale or rotten food. Or worse, that they will be sent to the streets to beg for donations. This is what happened to me when times were hard, and it is what happened after the 2008 crash too, and we feel we all have a responsibility to stop this happening again.

Vulnerable children growing up in orphanages generally need more care than others, not less. They should have access to counselling services, for example – especially in this current terrifying time for the world. Most of us are scared, but at least we get to be with our families. I keep imagining how isolated those kids must feel – they are used to going to school and playing outside to distract themselves. My friend from the Dallu orphanage said that the children are used to daily excitement from volunteers and visitors. Now they are all locked inside and deeply missing their families.

I also feel for the kids’ parents in the villages. Usually families completely lose track of their children once they are sent with the orphanage traffickers, and even in a time of pandemic the parents have no way to contact them to check if they are safe.

There’s a chance that the orphanages being run as businesses will just give up when they are no longer profitable and decide to send their children back to their families. I know this might sound like a good thing – I’m sure everyone is thinking: “If these kids have parents they should for sure not be in an orphanage anyway!” And while of course I agree with that, it isn’t that simple. Some of these kids have been separated from their families for many years, and reintegration is a tricky process. It requires a lot of follow up and support to be successful and to not put the child at risk.

I also have fears about what is going to happen in the aftermath of the pandemic, when the lockdown eases again. We are going to see a lot of desperate families. All the migrant workers that have returned jobless. All the small business owners who have not sold anything for months. All the porters and trekking guides who rely on tourism. All the NGOs that no longer have donors. Traditionally whenever Nepal goes through a crisis – for example, the civil war, the earthquake, every time there is a landslide or a flood – it has become a haven for child traffickers. Families have felt like they can’t take care of their kids and traffickers have taken advantage of them. I have always said that vulnerable children end up bearing the brunt of any disaster, as it is easy to exploit them to gain sympathy and make money.

We have an advantage over other crises as they usually come without warning and leave everybody scrambling. After the earthquake for example we just had to react to whatever situation was arising. Now we are in a lockdown that will gradually ease over months. We have time to strategise and to put careful plan in place to reduce the risk of trafficking. Basically we know it will happen because it always does, so we need to have a strong prevention and awareness program to roll out to ensure families are not susceptible.

To be honest, it worries me that I haven’t seen anything in the Nepali media about the plight of vulnerable children locked up in institutions. During this whole lockdown I have not seen a single report about the state of orphanages in this country. I have heard of no-one investigating if the children are being taken care of during this time. Not the NGOs, not the government – it seems like it is only me and the other ex-orphanage kids who have this on our minds. It is like these vulnerable children have been forgotten in the chaos.

Unless we bring attention to this issue we allow bad orphanage owners to exploit vulnerable children in this pandemic and child traffickers to pass under the radar. This article is a call to make sure this doesn’t happen – please let’s not turn our backs on the most at risk in their time of greatest need. Civil society needs to hold institutions accountable and also be asking our government to put resources into preventing trafficking and child exploitation.

Normally in my articles I advocate to not support orphanages as most of them are run as businesses. However in this pandemic my message to you is changing a little bit. The children stuck in orphanages in this pandemic are not going anywhere for some time, and they most likely need support. I have seen a lot of people out on the streets donating food, but the kids in the orphanages are invisible and are also in need of food or other help to get them through this. We will debate the rights and wrongs of orphanages later. In the short-term, let’s come together and ensure that vulnerable children are not forgotten.

Sushil Babu Chhetri is a freelance photographer and filmmaker from Surkhet, West Nepal, who is usually based in Kathmandu. His moving life story has been serialised on this blog, check out Part One here. Sushil is also an activist campaigning on behalf of vulnerable children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.