At least 5.2 million children under age 18 years have experienced the death of a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19. according to a new modelling study published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.
The new study finds that the number of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphan hood and caregiver death nearly doubled in the six months from May 1, 2021 through October 31, 2021, compared with the amount after the first 14 months of the pandemic (March 1, 2020 through April 30, 2021).
Although large numbers of children age 0-4 (nearly 500,000 children) and 5-9 (740,000 children) experienced COVID-19-associated orphan hood, adolescents age 10-17 are worst affected (2.1 million children), accounting for almost two out of three children who lost a parent due to COVID-19.
The study also noted that deaths disproportionally affect men, three out of four children worldwide who experienced the death of a parent during the pandemic lost their fathers.
The researchers noted that children who experience the loss of a caregiver have an increased risk of poverty, exploitation and sexual violence or abuse, HIV infection, mental health challenges and severe distress, and in some contexts, increased vulnerability to gang involvement and violent extremism. They called for call for evidence-based programs for children experiencing orphan hood to be urgently incorporated into pandemic response efforts, including programs that support economic strengthening, enhanced community and family support, and programs that avoid placing children in institutional care.
Lead author Dr Susan Hillis, who completed this work during her tenure at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that one child is left orphaned or loses a.caregiver for every person reported to have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is the equivalent of one child every six seconds facing a heightened risk of lifelong adversity unless given appropriate support in time,” the author said.
Noting that support for orphaned children must be immediately integrated into every national COVID-19 response plan, Susan Hillis said “such support should focus on three core components: preventing caregiver death through equitable COVID-19 vaccine coverage, containment, and treatment; preparing families that are safe and nurturing to support affected children (such as through kinship care, foster care, and adoption); and protecting children using evidence-based strategies to reduce risks of poverty, childhood adversity, and violence.”
“These strategies will help save lives now and put the programmatic and financial infrastructure in place on a global scale to secure a better future for children and families around the world,” Hillis said.
Dr Juliette Unwin, lead author from Imperial College London (UK), adds, “sadly, as high as our estimates of orphanhood and caregiver deaths are, they are likely to be underestimates, and we expect these numbers to grow as more global data on COVID-19 deaths becomes available.”
“For example, WHO estimates accurate data for COVID-19 deaths in Africa are limited, and the real estimates are likely to be 10 times higher than what is currently being reported. Consequently, these under-reported deaths mean that COVID19-related orphan hood and caregiver loss is also drastically underestimated,” Unwin said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were an estimated 140 million orphaned children worldwide. COVID-19’s impact on orphan hood was first revealed in a study published in July 2021, which estimated that 1.5 million children had experienced the death of a parent or caregiver between March 2020 and April 2021 as a result of COVID-19.
The new study increases this estimate to more than 2.7 million children for the same time period, by re-calculating the figures from updated COVID-19 death figures along with excess mortality data to account for indirect deaths associated with the pandemic (July 2021 estimates: 1,562,000 children vs latest estimates: 2,737,300 children). For the entire 20-month period of the study, the team estimates a minimum of 3,367,000 children were orphaned worldwide, experiencing the loss of a parent. A further 1,833,300 children were affected by the death of a grandparent or older adult caregiver living in their own home. Overall, the number of children affected by the death of a caregiver due to COVID-19 exceeded the number of reported COVID-19 deaths (5.2 million children compared to 5 million COVID-19 deaths).
“It took 10 years for 5 million children to be orphaned by HIV/AIDS, whereas the same number of children have been orphaned by COVID-19 in just two years. These figures do not account for the latest wave of the omicron COVID-19 variant, which may push the true toll even higher. We need to act swiftly to identify the children behind these numbers, so they can be given the support they need to thrive,’ says senior author Prof Lorraine Sherr from University College London (UK).