The impact of caregiver deaths due to COVID-19: 1.5 million children lost a primary or secondary caregiver

We’ve lost a lot of people in the pandemic. A study published in The Lancet this summer shows that 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 death related to COVID-19 during the first 14 months of the pandemic. The authors, Susan Hills et al, warn that orphanhood is an urgent and overlooked consequence of the pandemic 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.

From the press release (bold by me):

The analysis used mortality and fertility data to model rates of COVID-19-associated orphanhood (death of one or both parents) and deaths of custodial and co-residing grandparents (ages 60-84) from March 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021, across 21 countries. This study was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

In the paper, “COVID-19-associated deaths” referred to the combination of deaths caused directly by COVID-19 and those caused indirectly by other associated causes, such as lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings and movement, decreased access or acceptability of health care and of treatment for chronic diseases.

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 Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “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 — most lost one, not both parents. 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 (or other older relative).

The countries with the highest numbers of children who lost primary caregivers (parents or custodial grandparents) included South Africa, Peru, United States, India, Brazil, and Mexico. The countries with rates of COVID-19-associated deaths among primary caregivers (>1/1000 children) included 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.

“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. If we take into consideration variants of concern or possible severity of illness among youth, we must not forget that the pandemic continues to pose a threat to parents and caregivers — and their children,” said Chuck A. Nelson, III, Ph.D., study author, Boston Children’s Hospital.

While research on the science of substance use and addiction remains the primary focus of NIDA’s work, NIDA is supporting COVID-19 research, and has issued over $15 million in funding for COVID-19-related projects since the start of the pandemic that could leverage current infrastructure, projects, or scientific knowledge and resources.

Abstract of the study:

Background
The COVID-19 pandemic priorities have focused on prevention, detection, and response. Beyond morbidity and mortality, pandemics carry secondary impacts, such as children orphaned or bereft of their caregivers. Such children often face adverse consequences, including poverty, abuse, and institutionalisation. We provide estimates for the magnitude of this problem resulting from COVID-19 and describe the need for resource allocation.
Methods
We used mortality and fertility data to model minimum estimates and rates of COVID-19-associated deaths of primary or secondary caregivers for children younger than 18 years in 21 countries. We considered parents and custodial grandparents as primary caregivers, and co-residing grandparents or older kin (aged 60–84 years) as secondary caregivers. To avoid overcounting, we adjusted for possible clustering of deaths using an estimated secondary attack rate and age-specific infection–fatality ratios for SARS-CoV-2. We used these estimates to model global extrapolations for the number of children who have experienced COVID-19-associated deaths of primary and secondary caregivers.
Findings
Globally, from March 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, we estimate 1 134 000 children (95% credible interval 884 000–1 185 000) experienced the death of primary caregivers, including at least one parent or custodial grandparent. 1 562 000 children (1 299 000–1 683 000) experienced the death of at least one primary or secondary caregiver. Countries in our study set with primary caregiver death rates of at least one per 1000 children included Peru (10·2 per 1000 children), South Africa (5·1), Mexico (3·5), Brazil (2·4), Colombia (2·3), Iran (1·7), the USA (1·5), Argentina (1·1), and Russia (1·0). Numbers of children orphaned exceeded numbers of deaths among those aged 15–50 years. Between two and five times more children had deceased fathers than deceased mothers.
Interpretation
Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from COVID-19-associated deaths. Accelerating equitable vaccine delivery is key to prevention. Psychosocial and economic support can help families to nurture children bereft of caregivers and help to ensure that institutionalisation is avoided. These data show the need for an additional pillar of our response: prevent, detect, respond, and care for children.
Funding

 

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