A recent study reveals another devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on children around the world.
Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital estimate more than a million children may have been orphaned due to a COVID-related death, according to their model published Tuesday in The Lancet. They defined orphaned as losing at least one parent.
The authors estimate 1.13 million children lost a parent or custodial grandparent, and of these, 1.04 million lost a mother, father, or both. Overall, 1.56 million children were estimated to have experienced the death of at least one parent or a custodial grandparent, or other grandparent living with them.
The countries with the highest number of children who lost primary caregivers included the United States, South Africa, Peru, India, Brazil and Mexico.
“We know from our research that loss of a parent or caregiver can upend children’s lives and potentially affect their development if they are not in a stable home setting,” said study author Chuck Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.
To calculate pandemic-associated orphanhood, researchers used excess mortality and COVID-19 mortality data from 21 countries that accounted for 77% of global COVID-19 deaths during 2020 and early 2021.
In the study, COVID-related deaths included deaths caused directly by COVID-19 as well as those caused indirectly by the pandemic through lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings and movement, decreased access or willingness to seek out or accept health care and chronic diseases.
“They drew attention to something that is often underreported and that is survivors who’s left in the family,” said David Abramson, professor at New York University’s School of Public Health. “People don’t often think about how families respond to events like this and losing parents is like a secondary crisis on top of the initial crisis.”
The study not only brings attention to the pandemic’s long-lasting consequences for families, but also the future of their mental health, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which partly funded the study.
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Traumatic experiences, such as the loss of a parent of caregiver, are associated with an increased risk of substance use, mental health conditions, and other behavioral and chronic health conditions.
“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 adverse consequences, such as substance use, and we must ensure that children have access to these interventions,” Volkow said.
Nelson adds the impact may be worse among children who are older, those placed in institutions or temporary situations, or struggling with mental health before the pandemic.
Children from disadvantaged communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are more likely to also experience its long-term effects, said Barun Mathema, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
Although the pandemic may be waning as more people get vaccinated, he said, officials must allocate extra resources to these communities in the future.
“It’s an intense period of time where there’s extraordinary loss, there’s extraordinary horror and then suddenly, (the pandemic) is over,” Mathema said. “But the wounds still linger on.”
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