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Family Losses in the Covid-19 Context – A Secondary Pandemic
While considerable amounts of news and focus in the media have highlighted the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health services, life losses, or economic developments, few have addressed the long-lasting trajectories of children that have been left without care and nurturing environments.
12 August, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic had undoubtedly inflicted devastating losses upon every facet of human existence: globally, over 4 million individuals have lost their lives, with tens of millions of people facing the risk of falling into extreme poverty. Additionally, reports from the World Health Organization propose an underestimation of the number of casualties attributed to the rise of the pandemic – it is likely that many losses of human lives were attributed to the overall crisis conditions, with reported disruptions in essential health services in 90% of countries worldwide. When examining statistics of casualties from a more specific perspective, an article published in The New York Times highlighted the considerable scale of family losses, with a size unprecedented since the surge of the AIDS pandemic.

From March 2020 to April 2021, it has been estimated that over a million children worldwide have experienced the loss of primary caregivers, with an additional half a million experiencing the loss of at least one primary or secondary caregiver. Even such devastating numbers are considered to be an underestimate, due to gaps in effective testing and reporting of the cases. The implications of such statistics are grave, further highlighted by the inequalities in access to health-care services across countries with varying levels of socioeconomic resources. For example, as of March 2021, only 0.1% of Covid-19 vaccine doses were administered in low-income countries: while 44 doses were administered per 100 individuals in the United States, countries such as Sudan or Madagascar had no reported vaccinations.

In light of such reports, it is essential to acknowledge the importance of effective management in caring for the children that have lost their caregivers due to the rise of the pandemic. Drawing parallels with the spread of AIDS, errors in responding to such causalities resulted in hundreds of thousands of young children being sent to orphanages. While this may seem like an efficient solution to ensure such children receive the resources that are essential for typical development, the quality of care in institutional settings is far from ideal. For example, numerous studies have examined the long-lasting effects of severe deprivation experienced by children growing up in Romanian orphanages, including cognitive and social deficits, or increased risk for mental health conditions such as ADHD. Maltreatment in institutional settings has also been reported in more economically developed countries, with hundreds of thousands of children suffering from neglect in US orphanages.   

PEPFAR, a groundbreaking program allocating governmental resources to the support of children who have lost their caregivers during the rise of the AIDS pandemic is, up to date, preventing youngsters from being placed in such institutions, and funding households that can provide stable care and resources for the children. Such initiatives in the COVID-19 context could ensure that the children who have suffered family losses can follow typical trajectories in terms of health, social, and cognitive development. Moreover, increasing the number of vaccinations and quality of health services across the globe, especially in countries with limited access to health-care, could prevent the loss of caregivers. Training and financial funding programs for new caregivers are an additional solution to be implemented, ensuring the focus on proper education and health for orphans and vulnerable children living in family-based care.

For individuals that have been fortunate enough to retain their health, status, or financial stability in the aftermath of the first waves of the pandemic, it may be easy to overlook the losses that have decimated entire families and communities. While considerable amounts of news and focus in the media have highlighted the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health services, life losses, or economic developments, few have addressed the long-lasting trajectories of children that have been left without stable care and nurturing environments. Such a perspective is a fundamental aspect to be considered. While the COVID-19 crisis has been acknowledged as a contemporary global tragedy, its aftermath could be reflected in waves across countless future generations – going beyond the recovery of global markets and services, the disruptions in care and social functioning for millions of young children could destabilize the development, efficiency, and wellbeing of future communities, workforces, or family environments.   

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