COVID’s Impact on Children: More than One Million Orphaned

Several new reports highlight what those laboring in the field of child welfare have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic:  although COVID-19 has a very limited direct impact upon children, COVID’s indirect impact upon children has been immense.

A study in July’s volume of the Lancet estimates that 1.1 million children have been orphaned by COVID – losing at least one parent or custodial grandparent.  An additional 400,000+ children lost at least one caregiver.  Significantly, the number of children orphaned exceeded the total number of COVID-related deaths among people age 15-50.

In many countries, the number of children losing primary caregivers was greater than one in every 1,000.  At the top of this list is Peru, with more than ten children in every 1,000 having lost a primary caregiver.  Far more fathers were lost than mothers — by a factor of at least two to one, and in some countries five to one. (For more granular country-by-country estimates, see the COVID-19 Orphanhood Tracker from the Imperial College of London).

Expanding on the estimates of the Lancet study, the CDC released the report, “Children:  The Hidden Pandemic 2021.”  The report explores the many facets of COVID’s impact upon children, especially the most vulnerable.  It affirms a number of prior studies, including one in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect that found across a range of both high- and low-income countries, “Risk factors for children appeared to increase while there were often substantial deficits in CPS responses…”

This impact can be seen in the US, too – from educational losses to anxiety and depression.  For children in the foster system who lack the care of a safe family, the effects have been particularly harsh, as explored in a recent article in Scientific American, “How the Pandemic Roiled the Foster Care System.”

As expressed in this blog back in the spring, “The simple truth is that in virtually any crisis, vulnerable children are most always among the hardest hit.”

In virtually any crisis, vulnerable children are most always among the hardest hit

I fear this impact will grow worse before better, especially in the developing world.  At first, COVID hit hardest in wealthy and/or industrialized countries.  That center of gravity has shifted decisively.  Now the highest death rates are all in developing countries.

This comes on the heels of a year and a half of local lockdowns and global stagnation that devastated the economies of many developing nations.  For more than a half century, the income of developing countries has risen steadily.  Since the advent of COVID-19, the World Bank reports that it has fallen for the first time in 60 years.  And while economic growth has lifted millions from poverty in recent decades, the UN now predicts that the economic impact of the pandemic could pull as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty (earning less than $2/day).  Even with rapid vaccination – which appears to be a near impossibility in the poorest parts of the world – the impact of both COVID and public response to it will continue to create severe economic and social fallout for years to come.

As always, there have been many bright spots within the storm.  I think of countless organizations, churches, and families that I interact with daily across the US and around the world who’ve stepped up dramatically over the past 18 months – both serving locally and giving globally.  I think of the remarkably innovative organizations running programs around the world who received CAFO’s COVID-19 Challenge Grants to develop new models to serve children and families in the thick of the pandemic.  These and countless others are living into the call to generosity and service that Christians at their best have modeled amidst crises all throughout history.

Countless organizations, churches and families worldwide are living into the call to generosity and service that Christians at their best have modeled amidst crises all throughout history.

But as these recent report soberly remind, the road ahead will not be easy.  As I shared with reporters covering the Lancet report:

“COVID-19 and its many ripple effects have done great harm to families worldwide. This tragedy brings both an immense challenge and an immense opportunity. The local church in every nation has both the calling and the community capable of making a world of difference — restoring broken families, strengthening struggling families, and welcoming children into new families whenever needed.”