The new wave of coronavirus infections is spreading like "wildfire" across India, leaving many young people destitute, with reports of four cases every second and more than two deaths per minute in the past day, the UNICEF said on Friday.
"What is happening in India should raise alarm bells for all of us," Yasmin Haque, UNICEF Representative in India, told journalists via video call at a UN press conference.
"COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate across South Asia, especially in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives."
As the world's second-most-populous nation, India is staking its hold as the new global COVID-19 epicenter, said Haque, noting: "This wave is almost four times the size of the first wave, and the virus is spreading much faster.
India set a new global record on Thursday after the country registered its biggest single-day rise in coronavirus cases of over 412,000 in the last 24 hours.
The UN official noted that health facilities have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, with reports that pregnant women have struggled to find the support they need to give birth.
Every year, 27 million children are born in India, she said, adding that "life-saving services to help women give birth are critical in India."
- Low vaccination levels
Haque underlined that vaccination levels in most South Asian countries were very low -- less than 10% in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
Concerns are growing that the virus is spiraling even further, added the UNICEF official.
She said that vaccine production needed to be diversified to support other countries and boost vaccine production, as India has had to cut back on supplies to developing countries.
- Child exploitation
UNICEF is also concerned that the current COVID-19 surge has also led to "dire consequences" for a more significant number of children than during the first wave of infections, with access to essential health, social protection, and education services constrained.
"Children are facing mental health issues and are at greater risk of violence, as lockdowns shut them off from their vital support networks," Haque explained.
Although there is no indication that the proportion of children getting infected is any different from the first wave, "the numbers are far greater," she insisted.
"We're seeing the virus entering a household -- it just takes one member of the household to be affected -- and it seems to spread like wildfire throughout the family."
Along with this, there has been a likely spike in illegal adoption pleas on internet platforms by families desperate to find homes for orphaned relatives, prompting fears of child exploitation, she warned.
"When we see that children are being orphaned -- and we do see that there is a lot of trafficking of children which is reported -- children go missing. Those systems are beginning to pick up on numbers."
"While there isn't enough data yet, we can see that illegal adoption pleas have surfaced on social media, making these orphans vulnerable to trafficking and abuse."