The massive global death toll of the coronavirus pandemic has cost over a million children at least one parent or guardian, and another 400,000 children lost a grandparent or other secondary caregiver, according to a study released Tuesday that warns of a burgeoning worldwide “hidden pandemic” of Covid-related orphanhood.
In a study published by the Lancet medical journal that was led by a staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, researchers estimated 1.134 million children globally lost a parent or custodial grandparent due to Covid-19 from March 2020 to April 2021, and 1.562 million kids lost a parent, grandparent or another older relative who lived with them.
The study estimates the United States, India, Brazil and Mexico — four countries with fairly high coronavirus death rates — have especially severe orphanhood issues, with over 100,000 children in each country losing a primary caregiver to the pandemic.
Researchers arrived at these estimates by using data on fertility rates and excess death tallies from the United States and 20 other countries with high Covid-19 death counts, and extrapolating that data for the rest of the world, a strategy the authors compared the methods used in the past to estimate AIDS-related orphanhood.
This estimate far exceeds figures from an April JAMA Pediatrics study, which found 37,300 U.S. children had lost a parent to the coronavirus as of February.
The study’s authors acknowledged their methods had some limitations. In countries with unreliable data on excess mortality, researchers relied on Covid-19 death counts, which many observers believe are severely underreported.
Children are far less likely to die or become gravely ill from coronavirus than adults. Minors account for just 335 of the United States’ more than 600,000 total Covid-19 deaths, compared to around 475,000 American seniors who have died, per CDC figures. But researchers warn children could face dire secondary consequences from Covid-19, especially if their parents or close relatives die. Children who lose a parent or guardian often end up with enduring trauma, health issues and socioeconomic risks, researchers said Tuesday.
“Children losing their parents and caregivers to Covid-19 is a secondary pandemic,” Lucie Cluver, a professor at Oxford University and the University of Cape Town who co-authored the study, wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday.