The hidden and heartbreaking impact of COVID-19: Millions of children who have lost a parent | National Geographic

hidden disaster

By the spring of 2020, the pandemic had not yet hit Zambia, but Remy Hamabande was concerned as he watched COVID-19 rock the rest of the world. As country director for the non-profit Forgotten Voices, which operates in several countries in South Africa, Hamabande knew the pandemic would be difficult for children in the region who had previously lost their parents to AIDS and who were being cared for by their grandparents. They belonged to the group susceptible to COVID.

“If the coronavirus hits here and kills all the grandparents, there will be no one left to take care of the children left behind,” Hamabande believes. Then these children will be orphaned a second time.”

Hamabande called Heels to raise the alarm. During her decades working at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hillis conducted research on children who lost their parents through various health crises. By August 2020, she had assembled a team of scientists to figure out how many children were involved, starting with the United States and Brazil.

In just two weeks, Hillis said, they collected preliminary data that was “horrific and heartbreaking”. It is estimated that for every two COVID-19 deaths reported in those countries, at least one child was left behind. When the delta variable caused spikes around the world, that number rose to one child left behind for every corona death. In Africa, as of the end of October 2021, there were two orphans for every death.

Despite the huge number of deaths, the crisis of children left behind has received relatively little attention; It is a pandemic that remains hidden within a pandemic. According to Rachel Kidman, a Stony Brook University social epidemiologist who specializes in childhood issues, COVID-19 is seen primarily as a disease of the elderly, leaving little attention to its negative effects on children.

But according to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of children around the world are raised in multigenerational families. In Zambia and many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30 percent of children live in the so-called “leave-generation household”, which means that these children do not live with their parents, but with their grandparents.

Additionally, Kidman points out that COVID-19 is not only fatal to grandparents. Because of the uneven global distribution of vaccines against the disease, people of all ages are more likely to contract the disease in some parts of the world. In addition, the disease is often fatal to people for whom there is hardly any health care.

“There is now a large group of people under the age of 65 who have died from COVID,” Kidman said. “People in this age group often have to take care of children,” Kidman said.

In Zambia, Hamabande held that children should be separated from the family and that villagers who were already struggling to feed their family members took away the children of their neighbours. There was hardly any guidance and Hamabande saw signs of shock, from wetting the bed to the tidal wave of suicides.

“Imagine if a child lost a caretaker and there was basically no one to turn to,” he says. He says there is also an urgent need for psychological help.

How can we help children who have lost their parents

Previous crises have taught scientists what can and certainly not help relieve pain.

What is certain not Should it happen? Put children in orphanages – or at least in institutions where neglected children are crammed together like sardines. Pioneering research in Romanian orphanages, which were notorious for their poverty in the 1990s, found that institutionalization had a significant impact on children’s brain structure. Each year in the orphanage resulted in more cognitive and developmental delays compared to children in foster care.

The good news is that this effect diminishes once the child finds a good home. A 2012 study found that children from the homes of children who were placed in foster care were able to compensate for their developmental delays compared to their peers.

Lucy Clover, professor of social work at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cape Town, says that children need a family (in any form) to give structure to their lives. Whether the child is loved, has enough to eat and can go to school, “that determines the effect of death, not death itself.”

But even orphans who receive good care need extra support. According to Clover, who was part of the Hillis team estimating the number of orphans from COVID-19, financial assistance, parenting support, and ability to stay in school are the three most important factors.

Making sure families have enough money and food. When parents don’t have to work multiple jobs at once, they can take the time to listen and support their children. If children have enough to eat and are in school, they are less likely to have other risk factors. Financial support for families living in poverty has been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of girls and young women having to engage in paid sex.

Abuse is another danger. Parental pressure can lead to violence in vulnerable families. It is important to equip caregivers with the necessary skills when a child or other caregiver exhibits problematic behavior during bereavement. Research has shown that special programs can significantly reduce physical, sexual or emotional violence within the family.

Finally, it is important that children who have lost a parent are able to go to school. This helps traumatized children return to their normal lives to some extent. In addition, school attendance has been shown to combat poverty, ensuring that children subsequently become sexually active and are able to participate in society.

Is help on the way?

In late September 2021, Calandra Cook was just starting her final year at Georgia State University when she had to drop out because she had to arrange her mother’s funeral. The 21-year-old girl, who had no relatives to help her, had to decide everything on her own. She did, but she was numb from the blow.

Doctors had warned Calandra that her mother’s lungs were weakening, her heart rate too high and her oxygen level too low. However, Yolanda Michai Powell’s death came as a complete shock to Calandra and her three siblings. They did not even have the opportunity to talk to or cuddle with their mother before she passed away. “I had to say goodbye to my mom through the glass,” Calandra says.

Then she faced the task of finishing her school. She was told through her education that she was no longer entitled to a student loan and that she would have to pay for her studies herself. That’s while she couldn’t go home to save money.

“When my mom died, the safety net died too,” Calandra says.

Earlier this year, the COVID Collaborative, a group of leading US experts in public health, education, and economics, founded Hidden Pain. Through this online platform, families who have lost someone can find funding for things like funeral expenses, discounts on online services, and bereavement groups. In California, plans are underway to create a state-funded fund for COVID orphans. But little is happening nationwide in the United States.

In the rest of the world too, little happens on the scale that applies to the US government’s PEPFAR (US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) project. After scientists first sounded the alarm about the fate of AIDS orphans, it took another 13 years before PEPFAR could begin. By this time, the number of orphans increased from 903,000 to 15 million.

“I hope with all my heart we don’t have to wait another thirteen years,” Hillis says. “This tsunami is engulfing us with the emergence of one variable after another.”

Calandra finds it frustrating that the world has already forgotten about the pandemic, even the people who helped her right after her mother’s death. “Over time, everyone progresses,” she says. “Mourning is something you do on your own.”

She still has a few subjects to complete, but she and her classmates will be graduating in May — the weekend of Mother’s Day. It’s a bittersweet experience: Yolanda was so happy her daughter was getting her college degree that she called her three times a day.

Calandra knows that she will find it difficult to walk on stage without her mother in the audience. “People say she’ll be there at some point, but it doesn’t really help you feel better,” Calandra says. She’ll stick to one of her mom’s favorite tips. “I can already hear her telling me not to be frail. I owe everything to my mom.

This article was originally published in English at

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