More than 12,000 children in the UK have either been orphaned or lost a caregiver due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a major new study has found.
Almost 10,000 of these are children who have been orphaned (defined as an under-18 who has experienced the death of one or both parents), the figures show.
An international team of researchers from the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford, among others, compiled the landmark report using data from 21 countries which account for 77 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths.
They calculated that around 1.5 million children in those countries had lost either a parent, grandparent, or caregiver as a direct result of the pandemic in the 14 months between March 2020 and April 2021.
“For every two Covid-19 deaths worldwide, one child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver,” said Dr Susan Hills, study lead author from the CDC.
The researchers based their methodology on a similar study which estimates the number of children orphaned due to AIDS.
They built a model which takes into account people who died as a direct result of contracting the virus, but also excess deaths due to lockdowns, such as the inability to receive treatment for new and existing health concerns.
Researchers used estimates of populations, family dynamics, fertility rates and death rates to calculate how many fatalities were due to Covid-19 and also affected a child.
It is the first time experts have managed to estimate how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the number of orphans.
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They were able to calculate numbers, by nation, for how many children were orphaned (death of one or both parents); lost their primary caregiver (death of a custodian or grandparent if the parents are not around); or experienced the death of a secondary caregiver (a grandparent who lived with the child, but was not the main carer).
It revealed 1.56 million children lost someone in at least one category, and a quarter (27 per cent) were secondary caregivers, where the children still have an adult to depend upon.
However, Covid-19 stole the primary caregiver of 1.14 million children worldwide, and 1.04 million were orphaned, the figures show.
Researchers warn however that these figures are a “lower estimate” and the true figure could be up to an order of magnitude higher due to the under-reporting of deaths.
Peru was the country hardest hit, with more than 92,000 children being orphaned, compared to 9,595 in the UK.
Dr Seth Flaxman, one of the study’s lead authors, from Imperial College London, said: “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.”
Before Covid-19 appeared it was estimated there were around 140 million orphaned children worldwide and previous studies have shown these young people are at much higher risk of mental health issues, povery, and are more likely to die by suicide.
“We need to vaccinate caregivers of children – especially grandparent caregivers. And we need to respond fast because every 12 seconds a child loses their caregiver to coronavirus,” said Prof Lucie Cluver, one of the study’s authors from Oxford University.
The report is published in The Lancet.