The cost of the COVID-19 pandemic is usually measured in deaths, sometimes in those hospitalized or affected by long-Covid. However, there is at least one horrifying statistic that has been largely overlooked: the number of children who have lost people who previously cared for them, sometimes leaving them without support. Now an estimate of that number has been calculated in The Lancet, and it makes for some of the bleakest reading of the whole disaster.
To assess how common this has been, researchers used the ages of people who died from COVID-19 between March 2020 and April 2021 in the 21 countries that made up 77 percent of total deaths. Combining this with fertility data, the authors calculated how many children these people had had in the last 18 years, assuming parents were no more or less susceptible.
Extrapolating to the world as a whole, the authors estimate more than one million children have lost one or both parents directly to COVID-19 or to the knock-on effects of the virus, such as reduced access to hospital beds. Many more lost grandparents, but restricting the data to older relatives who previously lived with the children, and therefore probably contributed to their care, the study brings the total to 1.56 million. Almost three months after the cut-off date, the number has probably grown.
Peru, the worst-hit country, has 10 in this category for every thousand children – but even in the United States 113,000 children were affected, more than one in a thousand. Losing a father was 2-5 times more common than losing a mother, both because COVID-19 has killed more men and because children more frequently have fathers in a dangerous age bracket.
"For every two COVID-19 deaths worldwide, one child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver,” Dr Susan Hillis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Response Team, one of the lead authors of the study, said in a statement. “Our findings highlight the urgent need to prioritize these children and invest in evidence-based programs and services to protect and support them right now and to continue to support them for many years into the future - because orphanhood does not go away."
The paper also draws on studies of children orphaned by HIV or Ebola to recommend the most effective interventions to support children affected in this way by the current crisis.
"We know from our research that loss of a parent or caregiver can upend children's lives and potentially affect their development if they are not in a stable home setting,” Dr Chuck Nelson of Boston Children's Hospital said. “If we take into consideration variants of concern or possible severity of illness among youth, we must not forget that the pandemic continues to pose a threat to parents and caregivers - and their children."