An estimated 1.562 million children worldwide lost a caregiver from March 2020 to April 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published this week in The Lancet.
“Studies like this play a crucial role in illuminating the COVID-19 pandemic’s long-lasting consequences for families and the future mental health and well-being of children across the globe,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., in a news release. NIDA helped fund the study.
Susan Hillis, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Response Team and colleagues noted that orphanhood (defined as the death of one or both parents) can have severe consequences for children. “Because COVID-19 can lead to death within weeks, families have little time to prepare children for the trauma they experience when a parent or caregiver dies,” they continued.
Hillis and colleagues used excess death and COVID-19 death data from 21 countries from March 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021. The countries accounted for 76% of global COVID-19 deaths. The deaths included those caused directly by the virus, as well as those caused indirectly by other causes, such as lockdowns or decreased access to health care. The authors also used fertility rates to calculate the average number of children that each adult would have during the study period, to estimate the number of children orphaned by these deaths. They extended the study to incorporate deaths of grandparents aged 60 to 84 who lived with their grandchildren. Primary caregivers were defined as parents and custodial grandparents, while secondary caregivers were defined as co-residing grandparents or other relatives.
The authors found that 862,365 children in the 21 countries had been orphaned or lost a custodial grandparent due to COVID-19, including 788,704 who lost a mother, father, or both parents. South Africa, Peru, the United States, India, Brazil, and Mexico had the highest numbers of children losing primary caregivers. In the United States, 136,692 children lost a primary or secondary caregiver. Based on their findings, the authors estimated that 1.134 million children around the world lost a mother, father, both parents, or a custodial grandparent during the study period. Further, the authors found that there were up to five times more children with deceased fathers than mothers.
“Though the trauma a child experiences after the loss of a parent or caregiver can be devastating, there are evidence-based interventions that can prevent further adverse consequences, such as substance use, and we must ensure that children have access to these interventions,” Volkow said in the news release.
“Now is the time to focus on a group that will continue to grow as the pandemic progresses: the more than 1 million children who have lost a parent and another half a million children who have lost a grandparent caregiver living in their own home,” the authors concluded. “These unnamed children are the tragic overlooked consequence of the millions of pandemic dead.”
For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Children, Adolescents Constitutes Public Health Emergency.”
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