5.2 million children worldwide have lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19

Feb. 25, 2022

A new modelling study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal found that 5.2 million children under age 18 have experienced the death of a parent or caregiver as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide.

Estimates of the numbers of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood 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). Globally, the new study suggests that two out of three children orphaned from COVID-19 are adolescents aged 10 to 17 years. Additionally, in line with evidence that COVID-19 deaths disproportionally affect men, three out of four children worldwide who experienced the death of a parent during the pandemic lost their fathers. The study also points out 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.

The researchers call for evidence-based programs for children experiencing orphanhood 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. The findings can aid national responses tailored to age and circumstances of affected children. “We estimate that for every person reported to have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one child is left orphaned or loses a caregiver. That is the equivalent of one child every six seconds facing a heightened risk of lifelong adversity unless given appropriate support in time. Thus, support for orphaned children must be immediately integrated into every national COVID-19 response plan. 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,” says lead author Dr Susan Hillis, who completed this work during her tenure at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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.”

Lancet release

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