Global Orphan Rates Significantly Increased Due to COVID-19

Orphaned children experience greater risk of abuse and health complications, prompting a call to action for greater research and management of COVID-19 in ailing countries.

While many nations have continued to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, more concerns have been raised regarding the wellbeing of children during the past 2 years.

A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 Response team found that an estimated 1.5 million children experienced the death of a parent, custodial grandparent, or other relative caregiver due to the pandemic virus.

The numbers are staggering, especially considering that more than 1 million children experienced the death of 1 or both parents within 14 months of the pandemic, and another half million experienced the loss of a grandparent who lived in their home.

The study offered the first global estimates of the losses experienced by young children during the pandemic.

One of the lead authors of the study, Dr. Susan Hillis, spoke on the sobering numbers presented in their findings.

“For every 2 COVID-19 deaths worldwide, 1 child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver,” Hillis said in a statement. “By April 30, 2021, these 1.5 million children had become the tragic overlooked consequence of the 3 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, and this number will only increase as the pandemic progresses.”

The study noted that orphaned children across the world experience greater risk of mental health problems, family poverty, and physical, emotional, and sexual violence. They are also more likely to die by suicide or develop a chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or stroke.

Researchers studied the number of children affected by the pandemic by the loss of a parent or guardian in an effort to provide solutions.

The Study

The study was conducted between March 2020 and April 2021.

During that time, mortality rates and national fertility statistics were collected from 21 countries, as it related to COVID-19. The countries included accounted for 77% of global COVID-19 deaths.

Researchers then determined the number of children who lost parents due to the virus. Those who lost both parents were accounted for and not counted twice.

The team would go on to collect data on grandparents or older adults aged 60-84 years old who died while living in the same household as the children. The data was based on United States Population Division statistics.

Using mathematical modelling and country-level data on COVID-19 deaths and fertility rates, the model showed a high correlation between female fertility rate and the ratio of orphans to deaths.

The methods used to collect data for the study were similar to those used by the UNAIDS Reference Group on Estimates, Modelling and Projections during their study on AIDS in previous years.

The Findings

The available data showed that at least 1,134,000 children experienced the death of their mother, father, or custodial grandparents, as a consequence of COVID-19.

Additionally, an estimated 1,042,000 lost their mother or father, or both, making the overall number of children affected around 1,562,000.

Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, Iran, and Russian Federation were among the countries with the highest orphan rates. The investigators also reported that in India, an estimated 8.5-fold increase in new orphaned children took place between March and April of 2021 (from 5091 to 43,139).

Men made up most of the deaths in each country. Children were 5 times more likely to lose a father due to the virus.

Unfortunately, researchers noted that the data collected was most likely incomplete, as many of the countries studied had limited or incomplete data on the amount of COVID-19 related deaths.

Although the COVID-19 virus presented a new challenge, the investigators believed solutions used for the management of HIV and Ebola outbreaks could be used to protect grieving orphaned children and their families, as well as inform and protect the public at large.

Study author Professor Lucie Cluver recommended cost-effective economic strengthening, parenting programs and greater school access, as well as quicker responses by health care professionals and an increase in COVID-19 vaccines in ailing countries.

Another leading author of the study, Dr. Seth Flaxman, further stressed the need for action.

"The hidden pandemic of orphanhood is a global emergency, and we can ill afford to wait until tomorrow to act,” Flaxman said in a statement. “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 institutionalized in an orphanage, who will grow up profoundly damaged by the experience.”