More than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents during the coronavirus pandemic — nearly double the previous estimates — according to data released Tuesday.
Southeast Asia and Africa suffered the greatest rate of losses, with one out of every 50 children affected compared with one out of 150 children in the Americas, according to the research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Among the countries with the highest rates of parent and caregiver deaths are Bolivia, Peru, Namibia, Egypt, Bulgaria, South Africa, Ecuador, Eswatini, Botswana and Guyana, the analysis found. Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 140 million orphaned children worldwide.
Children in countries with lower vaccination rates and higher fertility rates were more likely to be affected, according to the modeling analysis, which is based on deaths that exceeded what would normally be expected in a year. The numbers take account of deaths that occurred from January 2020 through May 2022 and were produced through a collaboration between modelers at the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Imperial College London, among others.
Lead author Susan Hillis, a former CDC epidemiologist who is now at the University of Oxford, called the findings “sobering” and urged world leaders to prioritize orphaned children by providing economic, educational and mental health support.
“When you have deaths of this magnitude, certainly without help you can weaken the fabric of a society in the future if you don’t take care of the children today,” Hillis said.
In their letter, she and her co-authors wrote that “while billions of dollars are invested in preventing COVID-19-associated deaths, little is being done to care for children left behind.”
The consequences for children can be “devastating,” including institutionalization, abuse, traumatic grief, mental health problems, adolescent pregnancy, poor educational outcomes, and chronic and infectious diseases, they wrote.
The 10.5 million children who experienced the loss of one or both parents include 4.2 million in Southeast Asia, 2.5 million in Africa, 1.5 million in the Americas, 1.5 million in the Eastern Mediterranean region and 500,000 in Europe. In the United States, which is grouped with other nations in the Americas, about 250,000 children lost one or both parents.
Child and family advocates said the humanitarian crisis has parallels to the situation created by the AIDS epidemic. A 2020 report by the U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that as many as 17 million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.
John Hecklinger, president and CEO of Global Fund for Children, which partners with 250 organizations in 46 countries, called the number of caregivers who have died “mind-blowing.” Aid workers in developing regions, he said, have been reporting that issues such as child trafficking, early marriage and exploitative labor practices involving children are increasing as the pandemic continues.
“The orphan crisis underlies many other issues,” he said.
Carolyn Taverner, co-founder of Emma’s Place, which provides grief counseling in Staten Island, has been working the entire pandemic with children and families that have experienced the loss of a parent because of covid-19. She said public health policymakers should think about providing support not just for a short time but for the long term.
Many resources are available in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, she said, but those tend to wane over time. Meanwhile, it can take years for children to come to terms with death, and adults around them may not recognize that academic, cognitive or behavioral issues are often related to losing a parent.
“The problem,” she said, “is that often children take a bit longer to come to emotional realizations about grief and loss.”
Only a small number of countries, including the United States, have made national commitments to addressing the effects of orphanhood associated with covid. The White House under President Biden has released a memorandum promising that affected families would be able to access support programs and “connect to resources they may need to help with their healing, health, and well-being.”