World Bank: One child is orphaned every 12 seconds due to a COVID-19-associated death, and the toll is growing

The COVID crisis will leave many unwanted legacies. The world has been closely tracking the COVID-19 death toll, with official mortality counts now reaching over 4 million people, largely concentrated among adults. The children left behind have been practically invisible. 

The toll is staggering

Our estimates of the toll on children left behind, just released in the Lancet, are that for every 2 people who die of COVID, 1 child is left orphaned, facing the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver who had been living in their home. By the end of June 2021, because of COVID-19, our estimates show that nearly 2 million children aged under 18 years have lost a mother, father, and/or grandparent caregiver who lived in their household.  The economic, developmental, and psychological impacts on these children will reverberate across generations, a tragic legacy of COVID mortality.

To examine this pressing issue, we formed a Global Reference Group on Children Affected by COVID-19: Joint Estimates and Action through a collective of like-minded academics, practitioners from global organizations, and civil society groups.[1]

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 then extrapolated these estimates to arrive at global projections. During the pandemic’s first 14 months, our minimum estimates show over 1 million children experienced death of a primary caregivers, including parents or custodial grandparents.

Countries 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). In addition, over this same time frame, another half a million lost a grandparent caregiver living in their own home.

At this rate one child is orphaned every 12 seconds due to a COVID-19-associated death and the toll is growing.  Our most recent estimates reveal that for every 2 adults that die from COVID-19, 1 child is left without a familial caregiver.   For those interested in tracking country specific estimates, our team members at the Imperial College in the UK have developed a tool that provides country specific orphanhood estimates, as well as interactive visualizations of children affected, updated through links to the Johns Hopkins COVID data.

Risk of lifelong impacts

Children orphaned by COVID face a constellation of risks which often arrive with rapid and broad consequences . The threats of poverty, malnutrition, displacement and separation from siblings or other family members, school dropout, depression, violence and child marriage can emerge suddenly from the Pandora’s box of COVID-19.

What can be done to stem this tide of orphanhood and to support the children and families impacted by caregiver mortality? The authors of the Lancet article have developed a policy note to guide a response. This note draws on lessons from the HIV-AIDS crisis – which also left a generation of orphans – coupled with evidence on successful policy interventions.

Prevent, prepare, and protect

The strategy put forward by our team is to PREVENT death of their caregivers through the rollout of vaccinations and continued attention to mitigation, testing, tracing and isolating; to PREPARE extended or foster families to care for children left without parental care so as to avoid the institutionalization of children; and to PROTECT these children from their increased risk of poverty, vulnerability and violence, including by supporting remaining parents and caregivers with child-sensitive social protection combining cash transfers with caregiver support.

As the largest provider of development assistance globally, the World Bank has a critical role to play in supporting countries to develop policies and programs to support the children left orphaned by COVID.