Devastating Losses to Children Caused by Pandemic

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Devastating Losses to Children Caused by Pandemic      

 Jim Windell    

            Although more than 700,000 people in the U.S. have died so far as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s often those left behind who suffer the most. And that suffering could last a lifetime.

            Consider the children who lost a parent or a primary caregiver.

            A recent study estimates that more than 140,000 children in this country experienced the loss of a primary or secondary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

            The study represented a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa and was published in the journal Pediatrics.

          The analysis for the research used mortality, fertility, and census data to estimate COVID-19-associated orphanhood (death of one or both parents) and deaths of custodial and co-residing grandparents between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021 in the U.S. “COVID-19-associated deaths” refers to the combination of deaths caused directly by COVID-19 and those caused indirectly by associated causes, such as lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings and movement, decreased access or quality of health care and of treatment for chronic diseases. The data also analyzed the race and ethnicity of COVID-19-associated deaths.

          Specifically, the study authors estimate that 120,630 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver (a parent or grandparent responsible for providing housing, basic needs and care) due to COVID-19-associated death.  In addition, 22,007 children suffered the death of a secondary caregiver (grandparents providing housing but not most basic needs). Overall, 142,637 children are estimated to have experienced the death of at least one parent, or a custodial or other co-residing grandparent caregiver.

          There were racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities in COVID-19-associated death of caregivers as it was found that children of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver due to the pandemic.

          Overall, the study shows that approximately 1 out of 500 children in the U.S. has experienced COVID-19-associated orphanhood or death of a grandparent caregiver.

          The loss of a mother, father, or grandparent who provided their homes, basic needs, and care will cause permanent harm for many of these children. The loss of a parent is among the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) linked to mental health problems and often results in shorter schooling, lower self-esteem, sexual risk behaviors, and increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

          “Children facing orphanhood as a result of COVID is a hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States,” said Susan Hillis, CDC researcher and lead author of the study. “All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come. Addressing the loss that these children have experienced – and continue to experience – must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future.”

           “The magnitude of young people affected is a sobering reminder of the devastating impact of the past 18 months,” commented Dr. Alexandra Blenkinsop, co-lead researcher, Imperial College London. “These findings really highlight those children who have been left most vulnerable by the pandemic, and where additional resources should be directed.”

           And according to National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., “The death of a parental figure is an enormous loss that can reshape a child’s life. We must work to ensure that all children have access to evidence-based prevention interventions that can help them navigate this trauma, to support their future mental health and wellbeing.” Volkow also pointed out that we must address the many underlying inequities and health disparities that put people of color at greater risk of getting COVID-19 and dying from COVID-19, “which puts children of color at a greater risk of losing a parent or caregiver and related adverse effects on their development.”

           While there are a number of programs and initiatives that could help these children wjo experienced such vital losses, more action is needed. As the concluding words in the article indicate, “Effective action to reduce health disparities and protect children from direct and secondary harms from COVID-19 is a public health and moral imperative.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Hillis, S. et al. (2021). Covid-19-Associated Orphanhood and Caregiver Death in the United States (link is external)Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2021-053760 (2021).

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