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'A hidden pandemic of orphanhood': One million children worldwide have lost a parent to Covid-19

A new study based Covid-19 orphanhood figures on mortality data from 21 countries accounting for 77% of global Covid-19 deaths.

Image: Shutterstock/KieferPix

OVER ONE MILLION children worldwide experienced the death of one or both parents in the first 14 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A new study from The Lancet medical journal estimates that a further half a million children have lost a grandparent or caregiver living in their home in what is described as “a hidden pandemic of orphanhood”. 

Today’s study has called for urgent action to prioritise protection programmes for these children, who are at greater risk of health problems, family poverty, physical, emotional and sexual violence. 

The authors of the study based Covid-19 orphanhood figures on mortality data from 21 countries which account for 77% of global Covid-19 deaths.

The analysis included Covid-19 deaths between March 2020 and April 2021, in addition to excess deaths over the same period. 

Findings suggest that over 1.1 million children lost their mother, father or custodial grandparents due to Covid-19. 

Countries with the highest rates of children losing their primary caregiver include Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, United States and Russia. 

Researchers estimate an 8.5-fold increase in April in the number of children newly-orphaned in India (43,139) compared to March 2021 (5,091).

Deaths were greater in men than women in almost every country, particularly in middle and older ages. Overall, up to five times more children lost their fathers than lost their mothers.

The study notes that children who experience Covid-19 related deaths “are a greater risk of family separation or institutionalisation”.

“[We] argue it should be avoided because it has negative effects on social, physical, and mental development,” they said.

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One of the study’s leading authors Dr Seth Flaxman, Imperial College London, said: “The hidden pandemic of orphanhood is a global emergency, and we can ill afford to wait until tomorrow to act.

“Out of control Covid-19 epidemics abruptly and permanently alter the lives of the children who are left behind.

“Tomorrow is too late for the child institutionalised 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 study, which authors say was based on the most available data, goes on to say that caregivers of children – especially grandparents – should be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

It notes that its findings are likely underestimates. Figures for a number of countries included were based on Covid-19 mortality only with excess death data unavailable in some cases.

Covid-19 deaths may also be underreported because of variability in testing and reporting systems worldwide. 

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