Reviews | One million children have lost a caregiver to Covid. Here is how we can help them.
From March 2020 to last April, more than a million children in the world have lost a mother, father, grandparent or other adult they relied on as their primary caregiver to Covid-19. In South Africa, one in 200 children has lost their primary guardian. In Peru, it was one in 100.
Due to international gaps in coronavirus testing and reporting, these numbers are likely underestimated. But our team of researchers, including experts from public health organizations and universities around the world, used mathematical modeling and mortality and fertility data from 21 countries with 76% of global deaths from Covid-19. to estimate the number of children who have lost a caregiver (some have lost one or both parents, others have lost responsible grandparents). We’ve created an online calculator that displays minimum estimates for every country in the world.
What we have discovered is a magnitude of family loss that has not been observed since AIDS first raged in sub-Saharan Africa. “Remember Africa in 2002, when we realized that all dying adults meant orphaned children? asked the lead author of our study, Susan Hillis, senior technical advisor for Covid-19 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I did. I remembered the spread of a deadly virus at a time when life-saving drugs were available in the United States and Europe, but still years for other countries. I remembered that we were too slow to invest in caring for children who have lost their mothers, fathers and grandparents. The global community made some well-intentioned but terrible mistakes in our response: sending hundreds of thousands of young people to orphanages, putting them at higher risk of mental health problems, infectious diseases, physical violence, violence. sexual and poverty.
A similar situation is currently playing out with Covid-19. Our estimates suggest that every 12 seconds a child loses an important caregiver to the coronavirus. Even though there have been more than half a billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine administered worldwide, more than 75% of them have been used by the richest countries in the world.
This record is uneven in many ways. In countries like the United States, there are already strong social services for children who lose their guardian. In other countries, such as those that have already been hit hard by diseases like AIDS and Ebola, there are fewer guarantees.
Children in countries where multigenerational homes are the norm and where older family members play an important role in caregiving may be at greater risk. In some places, children who have lost their parents to Ebola or AIDS are placed in the care of grandparents who are victims of Covid-19. It is the very countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America that are experiencing new outbreaks of infections.
As widespread immunization coverage can take years, the number of bereaved children around the world could increase exponentially.
The grief of these children and their future is the responsibility of the global community. Other mass-fatal epidemics, such as HIV and Ebola, offer guidance on the way forward.
In 2003, the United States made an unprecedented commitment to children around the world affected by the AIDS epidemic. He demanded that 10 percent of the president’s AIDS contingency plan, also known as PEPFAR, would support children whose primary caregivers had died or were infected. This program continues to support families caring for children who have lost guardians, thereby preventing children from being placed in institutions.
It also provides funds to households to cover food and other basic needs for children. There are parenting programs to help prevent violence and improve relationships and mental health as well as grants for children, especially girls, to go to school. Eighteen years later, the mandate has maintained all-party support and the program continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in safe, stable and nurturing family care. Evidence suggests that programs like these help children advance in school and improve their physical and mental health.
The world needs a PEPFAR-like initiative that can offer the same kind of support to children affected by Covid-19.
The increase in immunization around the world will prevent caregivers from dying. When children lose a parent to Covid-19, they are ideally supported by a social worker or community organization. Siblings should stay together and children should be asked who they want to live with.
Investments are also needed to provide safe home child care and parenting programs for new caregivers, as well as money for food and school.
Programs like these are achievable and can be affordable. Cell phone parenting support programs that help caregivers deal with stress, give them non-violent discipline strategies, and teach how to protect children from sexual violence can cost as little as $ 8 per child. A children’s grant for families with orphaned or vulnerable children in Kenya costs around $ 18 per month, and research shows that families using them prioritize food and education.
The global community must consider options like these. Children who lose their parents and guardians to Covid-19 are a secondary pandemic.
Lucie Cluver is Professor of Child and Family Social Work at the University of Oxford and the University of Cape Town. She is co-author of a recent article on the orphanage associated with Covid-19 with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the State Agency United for international development.
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