More than a million children around the world have lost a parent to Covid-19, and a total of 1.5 million have lost either a parent, a grandparent who helped care for them or some other relative responsible for their care, a new study finds.
“Covid-19 has created this urgent crisis affecting children in almost every nation,” Dr. Susan Hillis of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Response Team, who worked on the study, told CNN.
“For every two Covid-19 deaths, one child faces the death of a parent or caregiver.”
The team – including researchers from the CDC, USAID, the World Bank, University College London and elsewhere – counted deaths in 21 countries that accounted for more than 76% of all Covid cases. They used methods developed and validated years ago to estimate the number of children globally who would have been orphaned by AIDS to forecast the number of Covid-19 orphans.
“Globally, from March 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, we estimate 1,134,000 children experienced the death of primary caregivers, including at least one parent or custodial grandparent,” they wrote in a report published in the Lancet medical journal. Plus, they added, “1,562,000 children experienced the death of at least one primary or secondary caregiver.”
Kids who lose a parent or caregiver are not only immediately stressed; they are also more likely to suffer diseases themselves, to be abused, and to suffer poverty, the researchers said.
“There are very severe consequences,” Hillis said. “The consequences of all these adversities are often lifelong,” she added.
“Children losing primary caregivers have higher risks of experiencing mental health problems; physical, emotional, and sexual violence; and family poverty,” the team wrote. “These adverse experiences raise risks of suicide, adolescent pregnancy, infectious diseases including HIV/ AIDS, and chronic diseases.”
Grandparents are more important than might initially be evident, they added. “In the USA, 40% of grandparents living with grandchildren serve as their primary caregivers; in the UK, 40% of grandparents provide regular care for grandchildren,” the researchers wrote.
Losing a grandparent can be more than merely upsetting. “The death of grandparents can also reduce the psychosocial, practical, and/or financial support for their grandchildren,” the researchers wrote in a linked online report. “These types of vulnerabilities often place children in need of alternative or supplementary care, such as kinship or foster care.”
But the pandemic has damaged the ability to provide even this less-than-desirable level of care for kids. “However, public health responses to the pandemic, such as stay-at-home orders and the constraints of conducting child protection evaluations remotely, have severely reduced the capacity of established child protection systems and services to provide much needed child safety interventions and support,” the report reads.
“These 1.5 million children are the tragic overlooked consequence of the more than 3 million COVID-19-associated deaths by April 30, 2021,” the researchers added. “Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from COVID-19-associated deaths.”
What to do about it? Number one, the researchers recommend: get Covid-19 vaccines to everyone as quickly as possible, and help prevent infections in other ways including mask use and distancing.
“As soon as a primary caregiver becomes seriously ill with COVID-19, or a family becomes seriously impacted by other pandemic-associated factors, that family should receive comprehensive evaluation including testing, tracing, and appropriate and supported quarantine of exposed family members. The family should be supported in developing a plan for how children might be cared for if their caregiver were to die,” they added.
And societies need to help families affected by the pandemic with economic, educational and mental health support, the report recommends.
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Low-cost services to provide all these are already available and there’s evidence to support what works, the researchers said.