The hidden crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic: 7.5 million orphaned children
Jomey Joseph, head of office for Catholic Relief Services in Chennai, India, and her team “virtually” track 1,200 at-risk children, not by internet, which often does not reach the communities she serves, but through phone calls to family or neighbors—a kind of community custodial care for vulnerable children. Those frequent check-ins allow C.R.S. staff to intervene when hunger, neglect or family tensions threaten.
About 200 of the children have lost parents or caregivers to Covid-19. After such a loss, older siblings, little more than children themselves, are often forced to care for brothers and sisters. The younger children in those households are acutely vulnerable to child marriage, child labor or human trafficking, Ms. Joseph said. She shared one story of a 2-year-old child traded by drug-addicted caregivers into a human trafficking ring.
Worldwide, researchers believe more than 7.5 million children so far have suffered the loss of a parent or primary caregiver to Covid-19.
The 200 vulnerable children in Chennai are part of what researchers call a hidden crisis of the Covid-19 era. The pandemic has claimed more than 6.25 million lives since it began in March 2020—and millions more have been lost indirectly through overburdened health care systems and other circumstances. Those numbers mean the pandemic is depriving children of parents and caregivers.
Worldwide, researchers believe more than 7.5 million children so far have suffered the loss of a parent or primary caregiver to Covid-19. They report that pandemic-associated orphanhood and caregiver loss are increasing at an unparalleled speed.
During the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic, it took 10 years for 5 million children to become orphaned. That grim milestone was reached after just two years of Covid-19. Covid-related orphanhood is doubling every six months, and three out of four children are losing their fathers—in many societies the family’s protector and breadwinner.
A study published in Pediatrics in October 2021 reported that by the end of June 2021 more than 140,000 U.S. children had lost a primary or secondary caregiver because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands more have lost their parents and caregivers since then.
As political leaders convened on May 12 for a second global summit to consider next steps in the Covid-19 response, advocates for children worry that this hidden crisis will continue to be obscured by other pressing needs. They agree that vaccinations and Covid treatments remain high priorities but worry that the care and protection of children must be part of the overall pandemic response too.
“We need to be aware of the shadow pandemic because, yes, we know that there is the health aspect, there is the symptoms aspect, everybody’s talking about masks, but who is talking about matters of the protection of children?” asked Fredrick Mutinda, a child protection specialist for C.R.S. in Nairobi, Kenya.
Children in economically marginalized households around the world were already at heightened risk before the pandemic, Anne Smith, the global director of C.R.S’s Changing the Way We Care initiative, said. Now Covid is “accelerating the drama for children.”
When the pandemic subsides, a “whole group of seriously affected populations, notably children, might be left behind.”
While some U.S. children who lose parents and caregivers may slip through social welfare cracks, Ms. Smith said, the risks to children are “exacerbated overseas” in places where there may not be a robust social safety net.
“A lot of countries can only prioritize getting vaccines and building up hospital capacity,” Ms. Smith said. When the pandemic eventually subsides, she worries there will remain a “whole group of seriously affected populations, notably children, who might be left behind.”
Many governments are “just trying to keep their health systems going,” she said.
Ms. Joseph’s office in Chennai is a member of the Changing the Way We Care network. That global C.R.S. effort seeks to retire the idea of orphanages as a primary option in dealing with vulnerable children while supporting civic programs meant to build up family caregivers’ capacity to support and protect children.
Often children presumed to be so are not orphans, Ms. Smith explained. They have living parents or relatives who could care for them given the proper support.
The post-pandemic years could witness a huge setback for campaigns like Changing the Way We Care. Ms. Smith is concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic might replicate a similar phenomenon experienced during the HIV and Ebola crises, when residential care institutions were “popping up all over the place” to receive children abandoned by families who could have kept them with the right economic and social interventions.
“There are years and years of research that shows how critical it is for children's development to be in loving family care,” Ms. Smith said. “And while I think some residential care institutions really try…there’s nothing that can replace the care of a family and the love of a family.”
“Yes, we know that there is the health aspect, there is the symptoms aspect, everybody’s talking about masks, but who is talking about matters of the protection of children?”
By depriving many in the developing world of income because of lockdowns and shuttered businesses, the pandemic has placed even more pressure on families to abandon children to government or private child care institutions. But even small assistance can offer significant returns to children “orphaned” under such circumstances. Mr. Mutinda reports that his office was able to provide small cash assistance and other parenting and psychosocial support to caregivers that allowed 300 children to remain with their families instead of being sent to a local institution.
Researchers at The Lancet, which first published reports on Covid-19 related orphanhood last year, called not only for more interventions to care for children left behind by the deaths of parents or caregivers, but also for accelerated and equitable distribution of vaccines to prevent too many more of those deaths. The World Health Organization reports that despite the significant progress on increasing coverage rates in lower-income countries, millions remain unvaccinated and exposed, with just over 15 percent of people in low-income countries having received a vaccine.
In its contribution to the global summit, C.R.S. said the agency would continue to respond to the secondary effects of the pandemic, including the loss of caregivers, combating hunger and addressing “the widespread loss of educational gains” around the world.