Hundreds of homeless children are roaming the streets of Dhaka to earn their livelihood and collect relief.
"Stay home, stay safe" is the mantra now. But for homeless children in the city, it has but little meaning.
Twelve-year-old Shahid works as a chicken vendor's assistant in the capital's Adabor area.
One morning in May, this correspondent met him while he was processing a broiler chicken on a cycle van.
He had a mask on, but it was stained with blood from hacking the meat. There was no disinfectant or sanitiser around him.
When I asked him about his work, he replied, "I have my parents and a little sister at home. Before the shutdown, my father used to work as an auto-tempo driver, but now he sells vegetables. My mother used to work as a domestic help but she is now unemployed. So I have to do something for my family."
When I informed him that the government was giving Tk2,500 to every needy family through mobile banking services, Shahid said, 'No one came to our house to collect our phone number. We do not know about this."
According to a survey report by Save the Children, currently three percent children in the capital are working outside to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families. And the worst part is, they cannot maintain hygiene or take enough precautions against the coronavirus.
Shahid at least has a home, a family to go to. What about those children who do not? What about the street children?
After the shutdown was imposed, Md Moniruzzaman, secretary of the Street Children Activist Network (SCAN), and his team did a sweeping survey in the capital.
They found that nearly 400 children were roaming around the city, especially in areas such as the Kamalapur railway station, Karwan Bazar, Mirpur-1, Gabtoli and the airport.
Md Moniruzzaman explained that the street children in Bangladesh can fall under four categories:
-Children who have a home, but stay on the streets as their parents work outside. They return home in the evening.
-Children who have a home but they also have stepfathers. So they occasionally visit their mothers.
-Children who come to Dhaka to find work. They stay where they work and visit home when they get a leave.
-Children who have no family; they have no clue who their parents are, where they belong.
"The last category has nowhere to go, no home in the capital or anywhere else in the country. The streets are all they have," Moniruzzaman said.
He added, "And during the Covid-19 shutdown, these children are in real danger. They have absolutely nowhere to go."
But during this shutdown, what are these children eating? How are they surviving?
Moniruzzaman said, "These children are either begging or depending on relief programs of different organisations. But that is not on a regular basis. We have found out that they are getting only one meal a day."
"What makes the situation especially difficult is that they do not have any sort of protection or medical facility. Although we did not find any street children who have been infected by the coronavirus," he added.
The Ministry of Social Welfare has several shelters or homes for these street children around the country.
The Business Standard reached out to Dr Abul Hossain, project director of the Street Children Rehabilitation Programme of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA), to know more about these shelters.
He said, "We have already accommodated some of the children in these shelters. They have regular medical check-ups. But the ones you see outside now, have arrived later from other places or from the slums, mainly to get reliefs given by different organisations. We cannot let them enter the shelter homes now, because that can be harmful for children who are already there."
So where would they go?
SCAN suggested, the currently vacant educational institutions can be used to accommodate these children for now.
To this Abul Hossain said, "It is a lengthy bureaucratic process. The education ministry, the social welfare ministry, and the planning ministry are also involved in these decisions. We cannot take these steps on our own."
About the relief programs by different organisations, Md Moniruzzaman said that at the moment, 72 organisations are working for street children.
But the problem is that they are not synchronised at all. Although they are coming up with good projects, these are scattered and the services are not well distributed or balanced.
He added that different donours donate money for these children through different organisations at different times, which creates problems.
If the ministry had a synchronised program and a controlled reporting mechanism, these children could have so much more.
We spoke to Gawher Nayeem Wahra, a child rights activist and faculty member at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, University of Dhaka.
His thought on this relief giving process is that they are following a wrong approach by distributing relief outside and on the roads. Parents in slums are encouraging their children to go outside to get these food and other reliefs.
Gawher Nayeem said, "Even some of our politicians are doing this because they need photographs which can be posted on social media. They can advertise themselves which can be used for future election campaigns. But going outside is dangerous for the children and their families as they can be affected by the virus."
He added, "Rather, they should give food and other reliefs directly to the slums or the shelters. Or provide the families with money or vouchers, so that they can buy things according to their needs."
If this could have been done, parents would not have to let their children get out of their homes. And our economy would still be working because then there would have been money flow in the system.
But Gawher Nayeem was pessimistic.
He said, "We do not have any realistic plans for these children. Do you know why? Because they are not on our agenda, they are not our potential voters. So you do not need to do something for them to get something in return."
We have seen our country being shut down before, our political parties used to call strikes for days at a time. But we did not come up with relief ideas then, we also did not think about these people.
But now, during this pandemic, we are thinking about them. Our humanity is on duty because this coronavirus is nothing political, it can harm any one of us.
If we want to save our future generation from this calamity, we must ensure that after this shutdown, every child can go back to school and there are no drop outs; despite the economy being shaky, there is no child labour; no child is married off during or after the shutdown and that there no child trafficking.
We have to accept these floating children and include them in our agenda and our policy makers must ensure this.