"For every two Covid-19 deaths worldwide, one child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver."
This is the grim math outlined by the CDC’s Susan Hill, one of the key authors behind a new global child welfare report that outlines a massive, and growing, orphan crisis.
Over the course of the pandemic, much of the primary health concern discussed in the media and addressed by policy makers has been focused on the elderly and adults with compromised health. This makes sense at first blush, after all the highest morbidity rate for the virus rests in those groups while children have shown to be more resilient to both the immediate effects of the virus and its long-term impact. However, this focus has crucially overlooked cases where the parents and guardians of children take ill and leave a child behind. With more than a year to study the phenomenon, this new study is sounding a dire alarm bell – we are in the midst of an orphan crisis.
The report breaks down the numbers. By the end of April 2021, 1.5 million children had lost a primary guardian (consider a parent, grandparent, or direct caregiver) due to the coronavirus. The impact of this cannot be overstated. Children are being left behind as the virus ravages the age cohorts entrusted with their care.
Worse yet, as COVID can turn terminal in weeks or even days, in the majority of these case there is almost no time to prepare the child. Either emotionally to understand the trauma they are about to endure, or to introduce them to and help them adjust to their new living conditions. Over a million children have had to deal with their lives turning upside now in an instant, a bewildering and scarring event. Many of these children are then thrust into institutions such as orphanages or group homes.
Institutionalization is an extremely common outcome for children across the world in the event of the death of a parent. Even in cases where there is a remaining parent (say the father dies but the mother survives), many still end up in the system. Either the remaining parent can’t manage, works far away or the time demands for work mean they are unable to properly care for their children, or a myriad of other situations can easily lead a surviving parent to surrender their child.
Unfortunately, as the study indicates, institutionalization often leads to a much harder road for the child. Obviously, there is a horrendous burden of trauma placed on any small child who loses a close loved one, combined with the disorientation of being placed into a new and unfamiliar situation. Entering an institution at the best of times carries with it the risk of developmental delays, behavioral issues, and a higher long-term risk of experiencing mental health issues, abuse, and poverty. Entering due to a parent’s death at the hands of a pandemic that has placed additional strain on these institutions will likely make it even harder for these children.
The report’s findings have spurred many groups to action. "We cannot allow any more victims, even if indirect, of this pandemic. If we do not protect this generation, they run the risk of being left behind. As children lose one or even two parents, families are often pushed further into poverty, which can mean children will drop out of school and start working to help with the family income. "These children will not return to school, and will likely be trapped in a cycle of poverty” said Bidisha Pillai, Global Policy, Advocacy & Campaigns Director for Save the Children.
The sheer scope of the challenge presents an opportunity for the Church to take a leadership role in addressing the crisis. As an unthinkable number of children face down an uncertain future, it will take men and women of good conscience to care for these lost lambs and provide them with the help they’ll need to recover from the loss of their parent or parents and thrive in life. Some churches and faith groups are already preparing donation funds to help combat this global crisis while others are asking even more, encouraging families to open their home to foster and/or adopt an orphaned child.
That is an incredible thing to ask, and a responsibility each family would have to carefully weigh and consider. But the crisis is real and what these children need most is a stable and loving home. Hopefully as Christians we will be able to rise to this occasion and follow in Jesus’ example.
"And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” – Mathew 1:5