More than 140,000 U.S. children have lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19, government agencies said Thursday in a study that described orphanhood as a “hidden and ongoing secondary tragedy” of the pandemic.
The National Institutes of Health said children’s lives are permanently changed by the loss of a mother, father or grandparent who provided a home, basic needs and care. It can lead to mental health problems, shorter schooling, risk of sexual abuse, violent behavior and suicide.
“Children facing orphanhood as a result of COVID is a hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States,” said Susan Hillis, lead author of the study at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come.
Researchers looked at the period from April 2020 to June of this year and estimated 120,630 children lost a primary caregiver — such as a parent or grandparent responsible for providing housing, basic needs and care — and 22,007 children lost a secondary caregiver, such as a grandparent who provided housing but not most basic needs.
The coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll on older persons, especially those over 50 years old, while only a fraction of deaths has occurred in younger adults and children.
All told, one in 500 children in the U.S. lost a parent or grandparent caregiver, said the researchers, who looked at both deaths directly from the virus and deaths that might have been spurred by social restrictions, such as delayed medical care for other health needs.
The researchers found racial disparities: children of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver due to the pandemic.
Academics from Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa assisted the CDC and NIH in the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.
Authors said orphaned children must be woven into the emergency response and post-pandemic recovery.
“The magnitude of young people affected is a sobering reminder of the devastating impact of the past 18 months,” said Dr. Alexandra Blenkinsop, co-lead researcher at the Imperial College London. “These findings really highlight those children who have been left most vulnerable by the pandemic, and where additional resources should be directed.”