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Home > News > Global Health Matters > Global Health Matters Jul/Aug 2021 > 1.5 Million children have lost a caregiver to COVID-19 Print

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1.5 Million children have lost a caregiver to COVID-19

July / August 2021 | Volume 20 Number 4

More than 1.5 million children around the world are estimated to have lost at least one parent, custodial grandparent, or grandparent who lived with them due to COVID-19-related deaths, according to a study published in The Lancet. The research—which covered the first 14 months of the pandemic—highlights orphanhood as an urgent and overlooked consequence of COVID-19 and emphasizes that providing evidence-based psychosocial and economic support to children who have lost a caregiver must be a key part of responding to the pandemic. 

The analysis used mortality and fertility data to model rates of COVID-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of custodial and co-residing grandparents from March 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021, across 21 countries. This study was funded in part by the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Traumatic experiences, such as the loss of a parent or caregiver, are associated with increases in substance use, mental health conditions, and other behavioral and chronic health conditions. NIDA supports research aimed at understanding the impact of trauma on young people, preventing substance use after experiencing hardship and treating substance use in populations that experience trauma.

"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 wellbeing of children across the globe," said NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "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." 

To estimate pandemic-associated orphanhood and caregiver deaths, the study used excess mortality and COVID-19 mortality data for 21 countries that accounted for 77% of global COVID-19 deaths during 2020 and early 2021. These include Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, England and Wales, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, United States and Zimbabwe.

The authors estimate that 1,134,000 children lost a parent or custodial grandparent due to COVID-19-associated death. Of these, 1,042,000 children were orphaned of a mother, father or both. Overall, 1,562,000 children are estimated to have experienced the death of at least one parent or a custodial or other co-residing grandparent.

The countries with the highest numbers of children who lost primary caregivers include South Africa, Peru, United States, India, Brazil and Mexico. Countries with rates of COVID-19-associated deaths among primary caregivers greater than one per 1,000 children include Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, United States, Argentina and Russia. 

The study found that for every country, COVID-19 associated deaths were greater in men than women, particularly in middle- and older-ages. Overall, there were up to five times more children who lost a father than who lost a mother.

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