“COVID-19 is going to wipe out an untold amount of people in India,” says Edith Wilkins.
The Cork CEO of the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation India is appealing for funds. Because of Covid-19, fundraisers have been cancelled. But Edith, whose foundation is based in Darjeeling, West Bengal — a state in eastern India — says that that country “is going from bad to worse”.
As well as Covid-19, a cyclone left West Bengal devastated and a massive locust infestation across India destroyed crops.
India has been particularly badly hit by Covid-19. With just four hours’ notice, the government closed down the country on March 13. As a result, hundreds of thousands of labourers (without contracts), living in slums, were ordered to go home, with many of them arriving in Darjeeling on foot.
“The problem is, Covid-19 is hitting there but there’s no PPE equipment. Plastic raincoats are being used (by medics),” says Edith.
“Darjeeling is a tourist place but that industry has been failing year after year. The tea gardens aren’t doing very well and loads of them have closed down.”
Social distancing is difficult in poverty- stricken parts of India.
“That’s why we’re frantic. We relocate the kids that come to us after they’ve gone through counselling and rehab. But an awful lot of the kids who have been trafficked come from slum areas.
“You’re talking about a 10ft x 8ft room with one bench in it and no water, sanitation or electricity. You could have six people living in such a room.”
The daily lives of these people are already a misery. “That’s now compounded by the threat of a lethal virus with no known vaccine,” says Edith.
Despite this, she says that the pandemic has brought out the best in people, “especially in the voluntary sector in India”.
“We have seen volunteers lining the roads handing out food and water to displaced multitudes,” says Edith. “We in the foundation have an amazing team and they hit the road running with immediate action to ensure our children’s safety.
“Our boys’ and girls’ residential homes are based in a safe compound, so the gates are locked and the children are all closely monitored. Any emergency admissions are isolated for two weeks in our sickbay.
“Our staff and volunteers follow this by educating the children about hygiene and the need for social distancing. Children whoho showed early symptoms were quarantined and thankfully recovered. However, our children living in the slums are not so fortunate.”
In these difficult circumstances, she said their team responded by distributing hygiene kits and dry food rations of rice and dal to those trapped in the slums.
“The hygiene kits contain soap, towels and masks along with disinfectant for their makeshift shelters.
“Other NGOs and the Indian government have worked to ensure some families have the basics to survive for the time being. However, as all our fundraisers in Ireland are cancelled, we need urgent donations to continue our work to help our team keep our children safe.
“At the moment, there are 300 children attached to the project. We urgently need to get dry rations and hygiene kits to them to protect them from Covid-19. A hygiene kit costs €3 and monthly food rations cost €27. That’s €30 to help support a child for a month.”
Edith says there is no testing for Covid-19 being rolled out in India. She adds that the daily labourers in the streets “are the backbone of society. They have gone back to their villages, but who is going to test them in the villages? People have died on the way back to their villages.”
The news from India is not all bad. Edith points to the setting up of a whole new system from the government.
“If the kids stay in education rather than going into child labour — which is the reason they end up being trafficked — the government will actually pay them to stay in school. This is a massive breakthrough which started last year. We work really closely with the government.”
But in the meantime, food shortages and Covid-19 mean that funds are urgently needed.
Donations can be made through www.idonate.ie/edithwilkins79 or through AIB, BIC 934348.
Account: 21439006 or through the Edith Wilkins Foundations office unit at 4, Drake Centre, Carrigaline, Co Cork.