COVID-19 ORPHANS & UNWANTED LEGACIES

By Vincent Lyn

COVID-19 crisis will leave many unwanted legacies. The world has been closely tracking the COVID-19 death toll, with official mortality counts now reaching nearly 6 million people, largely concentrated among adults. Though we know these numbers have been largely under-counted and more realistically are at least 2–3 times. Sadly the children left behind have been practically invisible. Researchers report an estimated 3 million children worldwide and 200,000 American children, ranked 4th highest in the world behind Mexico, Brazil and India were orphaned by COVID-19 — each number representing a child who has parents or primary caregivers to the pandemic. An estimate of the toll on children left behind, released in the Lancet, is that for every 2 people who die of COVID, one child is left orphaned, facing the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver who had been living in their home. The economic, developmental, and psychological impacts on these children will reverberate across generations, a tragic legacy of COVID mortality.

We often think of the impact of COVID-19 in terms of the number of lives claimed by the disease, but it is critical to also address the broader impact — both in terms of those who have died, and those who have been left behind. We must ensure children who have lost a parent or caregiver have access to the support services they need, and that this additional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is comprehensively addressed in both a rapid response and an overall public health response.

Based on what researchers have learned from the Ebola and HIV epidemics, orphaned children face high risks of short- and long-term negative effects on their health, safety and well-being after losing caregivers. Consequences include poverty, mental health problems, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy and higher risks of suicide, heart disease, diabetes, cancer or stroke. That’s why the researchers say experts need to respond quickly; every 12 seconds a child under the age of 18 loses their caregiver to COVID-19.

The hidden pandemic of orphanhood is a global emergency, and we can ill afford to wait until tomorrow to act. Out of control COVID-19 epidemics abruptly and permanently alter the lives of the children who are left behind, tomorrow is too late for the child institutionalized in an orphanage, who will grow up profoundly damaged by the experience. We urgently need to identify the children behind these numbers and strengthen monitoring systems, so that every child can be given the support they need to thrive.

The scale of family loss from Covid-19 has not been seen since AIDS first rampaged through sub-Saharan Africa. As global vaccine disparities widen, lower-income and under-resourced countries will begin to shoulder a greater burden of caregiver deaths associated with Covid-19.

In reality, the number of children who have lost parents is probably far greater than the studies estimates due to international coronavirus testing and reporting gaps. In the U.S, the CDC only records deaths from Covid-19 and not the survivors left behind. We need to establish domestic and global institutions to collect this data and allocate resources to provide evidence-based psychosocial and economic support to children who have lost a caregiver.

According to UNICEF, COVID-19 has affected children at an unprecedented scale, making it the worst crisis for children in its 75-year history, the United Nations Children’s agency said in a released report. “It warns that, almost two years into the pandemic, the widespread impact of COVID-19 continues to deepen, increasing poverty, entrenching inequality and threatening the rights of children at previously unseen levels”.

Throughout the history of UNICEF it has helped to shape healthier and safer environments for children across the globe, with great results for millions but these gains are now at risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest threat to progress for children in its 75-year history. While the number of children who are hungry, out of school, abused, living in poverty or forced into marriage is going up, the number of children with access to health care, vaccines, sufficient food and essential services is going down. In a year in which we should be looking forward, we are going backward.

The report says a staggering 100 million additional children are estimated to now be living in multidimensional poverty because of the pandemic, a 10 percent increase since 2019. This corresponds to approximately 1.8 children every second since mid-March, 2020. Further, the report warns of a long path toward regaining lost ground — even in a best-case scenario, it will take seven to eight years to recover and return to pre-COVID child poverty levels.

Citing further evidence of backsliding, the report says that around 60 million more children are now in financially poor households compared to prior to the pandemic. In addition, in 2020, over 23 million children missed out on essential vaccines — an increase of nearly 4 million from 2019, and the highest number in 11 years.

Even before the pandemic, around 1 billion children worldwide suffered at least one severe deprivation, without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water. This number is now rising as the unequal recovery furthers growing divides between wealthy and poor children, with the most marginalized and vulnerable hurt the most. The report notes:

  • At its peak, more than 1.5 billion students were out of school due to nationwide shutdowns. Schools were closed worldwide for almost 80 per cent of the in-person instruction in the first year of the crisis.
  • Mental health conditions affect more than 13 percent of adolescents aged 10–19 worldwide. By October 2020, the pandemic had disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide
  • Up to 10 million additional child marriages could occur before the end of the decade as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The number of children in child labor has risen to 160 million worldwide — an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years. An additional 9 million children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the increase in poverty triggered by the pandemic.
  • At the peak of the pandemic, 1.8 billion children lived in the 104 countries where violence prevention and response services were seriously disrupted.
  • 50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this figure could increase by 9 million by 2022 due to the pandemic’s impact on children’s diets, nutrition services and feeding practices.

Beyond the pandemic, the report warns of other threats to children that pose extreme threats to their rights. Globally, 426 million children — nearly 1 in 5 — live in conflict zones that are becoming more intense and taking a heavier toll on civilians, disproportionately affecting children. Women and girls are at the highest risk of conflict-related sexual violence. Eighty per cent of all humanitarian needs are driven by conflict. Likewise, approximately 1 billion children — nearly half of the world’s children — live in countries that are at an ‘extremely high-risk’ from the impacts of climate change.

In an era of a global pandemic, growing conflicts, and worsening climate change, never has a child-first approach been more critical than today. We are at a crossroads. The promise of our future is set in the priorities we make in our present.

In closing, it’s important to remember and never forget that every ‘single life’ lost, man, woman and child is a tragedy. As America trudges its way to one million lives lost it’s almost impossible for us to wrap our heads around such a vast number. In the early stages of the pandemic we were all in shock as we reached 100,000 and now that seems a lifetime ago as we have shot past 925,000 lives, the highest number of any nation on earth. We have become desensitized and numb to the daily deaths that continue to amass. It’s mentally exhausting and has taken a toll on all of us, and that’s why it’s even more important to take care of one’s own health, mentally, physically and spiritually.

To quote Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic”.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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