‘Hidden pandemic’: 1.5 mln children worldwide have lost a caregiver due to COVID

Children who have lost a parent or caregiver are at risk of profound short- and long-term adverse effects on their health, safety, and well-being. [Halfpoint / SHUTTERSTOCK]

As many as 1.5 million children worldwide have lost a parent, grandparent, or primary caregiver from COVID-19 during the first 14 months of the pandemic, a Lancet global study has estimated. Researchers have called for urgent investments in services to support children who lost their caregivers as the number is likely to grow.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased number of children facing the loss of a parent or caregiver, the Lancet study showed. The study was based on mortality data for 21 countries that account for 77% of global COVID-19 deaths, including five EU countries: Poland, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. 

It found that one million children experienced the death of one or both parents from March 2020 through April 2021. Another half a million experienced the death of a grandparent caregiver living in their own home, the study estimates.

“For every two COVID-19 deaths worldwide, one child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver. By April 30, 2021, these 1.5 million children had become the tragic overlooked consequence of the 3 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, and this number will only increase as the pandemic progresses,” said Susan Hillis, one of the lead authors on the study.

She is also a member of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Response Team. 

That number is expected to increase, warned Juliette Unwin, another lead author from Imperial College London. “In the months ahead variants and the slow pace of vaccination globally threaten to accelerate the pandemic, even in already incredibly hard-hit countries, resulting in millions more children experiencing orphanhood,” she said. 

Another study author, Lucie Cluver from Oxford University and the University of Cape Town, highlighted the importance of children caregivers’ vaccination, “especially grandparent caregivers. And we need to respond fast because every 12 seconds a child loses their caregiver to COVID-19″.

Orphans’ health, safety, and wellbeing at risk

Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 140 million orphaned children worldwide. Children who have lost a parent or caregiver are at risk of profound short- and long-term adverse effects on their health, safety, and wellbeing. The risk of disease, physical abuse, sexual violence, and adolescent pregnancy might increase after the loss. 

Therefore, the researchers called for urgent action to integrate ways to address the impact of caregiver deaths on children into COVID-19 response plans.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need to prioritise these children and invest in evidence-based programs and services to protect and support them right now and to continue to support them for many years into the future – because orphanhood does not go away,” said Hillis.

Seth Flaxman, one of the study’s lead authors, from Imperial College London, said that “the hidden pandemic of orphanhood is a global emergency, and we can ill afford to wait until tomorrow to act”.

He added that “tomorrow is too late for the child institutionalized in an orphanage, who will grow up profoundly damaged by the experience. We urgently need to identify the children behind these numbers and strengthen monitoring systems, so that every child can be given the support they need to thrive.”

The researchers noted that their findings are likely underestimations because COVID-19 deaths may be underreported due to the variability in SARS-CoV-2 testing and reporting systems.

“Tragically, many demographic, epidemiological, and healthcare factors suggest that the true numbers affected could be orders of magnitude larger,” said Unwin.

Why it is crucial to end orphanage-style care systems in Europe

Strengthening families and tackling child poverty goes hand-in-hand with ending institutional care for children, writes Jana Hainsworth.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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