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Loss of parents ‘will haunt thousands of Covid orphans forever’

27 March 2022 - 00:00
A new study suggests that in just six months last year, the number of children who lost a parent or caregiver to Covid almost doubled compared to the first 14 months of the pandemic.
A new study suggests that in just six months last year, the number of children who lost a parent or caregiver to Covid almost doubled compared to the first 14 months of the pandemic.
Image: 123RF/Przemyslaw Koch

Child health experts say a pandemic of orphanhood caused by Covid-19 will haunt SA for years to come.

By October 31 last year, 134,500 children had lost a parent or primary caregiver to the virus, according to a study in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

University of Cape Town researchers, with colleagues from Imperial College London and Oxford University, estimated that nearly 3.8-million children globally had lost a parent.

In SA, two-thirds of affected children lost a father and a third lost a mother. Almost half of parental deaths affected children in the 10-17 age group.

One of the UCT researchers involved in the study, Prof Lucie Cluver from the department of psychiatry and mental health, said mortality in Africa was underreported.

“New global estimates show that the actual level of Covid-associated orphanhood on the continent is likely 10 times more than the estimated rates,” she said.

To reach their findings, researchers used mathematical modelling, and mortality and fertility data from 21 countries, including excess mortality and Covid-19 mortality data.

Cluver said losing caregivers not only left children with compromised security and stability, but vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, psychological distress and economic strain, “trapping them in cycles of deprivation that can endanger their livelihoods”.


39%: Increase in SA's official monthly Covid death toll between May and October 2021, compared with the first 13 months of the pandemic

March 11 2020: The date Covid was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation 

These children and teenagers would “carry the burden of orphanhood for the rest of their lives”.

Cluver said the Covid-19 response, like the response to HIV/Aids in the 1990s, focused on adults who were more vulnerable to physical symptoms of the virus.

“Young people were not a priority. While global responsiveness and recovery plans were very quickly mobilised, they failed to recognise the hidden caregiving crisis,” Cluver told the Sunday Times.

Clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou, founder of the PsychMatters Centre in Johannesburg, said being orphaned or losing a primary caregiver could have negative consequences for children’s lives and cause mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and lowered self-esteem.

She said the pandemic had complicated the grieving process and compounded the stress related to grieving.

“Lockdowns, social distancing and restrictions on hospital visits and funerals have had a serious impact on how families grieve,” said Kleovoulou.

How children and adolescents understand death and mourn a loved one depends not only on their development stage but also on their cognitive ability, religious beliefs, prior life experience and social support.

“Restrictions on funerals have complicated the grieving process. Ensuring that ceremonies to honour the deceased are reintroduced and allowing children to be a part of the proceedings is encouraged.”  

Cluver said social security nets could help children and adolescents dealing with the loss of a parent.

“Child protection is fundamental. Parenting support programmes, violence prevention, schooling and health access can shield future generations from the caregiving crisis.”

Western Cape children’s commissioner Christina Nomdo said that during the height of the pandemic her office was informed of concerns among frontline workers about the increase in orphans caused by the virus.

“These frontline workers’ concerns were taken seriously by the department of social development, which helped to put care plans in place for vulnerable children.

“In the new budget, we have noted that there will be a top-up of the child support grant to enable relatives to better care for children who have lost parents. This is a positive step,” she said.

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