Healthcare

The global crisis of COVID orphanhood

GUILLEM SARTORIO/ Getty
Two nurses move a patient who lies in bed at ward number 20 of the Tembisa Hospital in Tembisa, on March 2, 2021. 

The flood of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s brutal invasion reminds us that the pain of war often falls most heavily on those with the least ability to cope, especially children.

The same is true of our battle with COVID-19, which has now left over 7 million children worldwide suffering from the loss of a loving parent or grandparent caregiver. Urgent action is needed to protect these children from the many threats they face. The Biden-Harris administration can lead by using the U.S.-hosted Global COVID-19 Summit this spring to rally the world to care for the hidden victims of the pandemic.

COVID-19-associated orphanhood and caregiver loss are increasing at unparalleled speed, with one new child affected every six seconds. It took the HIV-AIDS pandemic 10 years for 5 million children to become orphaned; it’s taken COVID-19 just two years to top that tragedy.

While equitable vaccine coverage can slow the rates of caregiver deaths, the numbers of children affected by COVID-19 orphanhood will continue to rise, especially in Africa where less than 10 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. The lack of strong social safety nets exposes these children to extreme threats, including abuse, violence, high-risk sexual behavior, and institutionalization. These risks increase when breadwinners die — a sobering fact given that 75 percent of COVID-19 orphanhood involves paternal death.

Most children losing a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19 have a living relative who, with adequate support, could care for them. But the time to act is now. Early intervention with educational, economic, and parenting support is needed to ensure that each affected child benefits from the healing hands of a safe and nurturing family — and does not end up in institutional care.

The good news is not only do we know how to help these children, but the U.S. is the global leader in supporting orphaned and other vulnerable children through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

This successful program has saved more than 20 million lives and turned peril into promise for  7.1 million AIDS orphans and others since 2003. Fifteen of the countries having the highest number of children newly orphaned by COVID-19 are in sub-Saharan Africa, where strong PEPFAR, USAID, and CDC programs can be leveraged to engage NGOs, faith-based organizations, governments, and donors in caring for these children. 

Unfortunately, while we know how to support and protect these children, the current global COVID-19 response framework fails to acknowledge the crisis of COVID-19 orphanhood — despite the fact that “Save Lives Now” is one of its major pillars. As a result, billions of needed dollars are being spent to prevent COVID-19 deaths, but nothing is being done to save the children left behind. The U.S. can change this dynamic.

President Biden has already shown the way by committing in the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan to support the over 200,000 COVID-bereaved children in the U.S. As urged by coalition of international NGOs, he should now use the upcoming Global COVID-19 Summit to call on all countries to formally incorporate care for children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood into global, regional, and national response plans. This will mobilize the needed political will and global resources to aid these children.

The U.S. can lead by example. Globally, the number of children orphaned due to COVID-19 is expected to grow to nearly 9 million by 2026. The U.S. can support and protect the most vulnerable of these children by investing an incremental $1.5 billion over five years, beginning with $320 million in urgent COVID-19 supplemental relief, in PEPFAR and USAID programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

This crisis is a challenge in search of a champion. At the upcoming global summit, we should take this opportunity to focus on the needs of the millions of young people who have been orphaned by the pandemic. For as Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

The authors are former Senate majority leaders and co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Future of Health Task Force. Daschle (D-S.D.), a BPC co-founder and founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and as Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2003. Frist (R-Tenn.), a BPC senior fellow, is a heart and lung transplant surgeon and served in the Senate from 1995 to 2007 and as Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2007.

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