SA has highest number of Covid-19 orphans in Africa

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Hundreds of thousands of children have lost their primary caregiver to Covid-19 across the globe. Photo: iStock
Hundreds of thousands of children have lost their primary caregiver to Covid-19 across the globe. Photo: iStock


South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 orphans on the continent, with 94 625 having lost parents and guardians in the past year, a new study has revealed. The country is one of 21 involved in the study that found that more than 1.5 million children were orphaned after losing their parents, guardians and caregivers to the pandemic between last March and April this year.

According to the study by a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Cape Town Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescent Hub, South Africa has recorded one of the highest numbers in the world for primary caregiver deaths.

Done in partnership with the University of Oxford in the UK and titled Global minimum estimates of children affected by Covid-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregiver: a modelling study, the results were published in The Lancet journal last month.

Up to April 30 2021, 1 562 000 children experienced orphanhood, or deaths of their custodial or other co-residing grandparents or kin, the study reveals.

According to Professor Lucie Cluver, who is based at the University of Cape Town and Oxford University and is one of the authors, one in every 200 South African children have lost a primary caregiver.

More than 78 000 South Africans have succumbed to Covid-19 and more than 4 million deaths have been recorded globally. The study looked at children younger than 18 who had either lost a primary caregiver, including at least one parent or custodial grandparent, between March last year and April this year.

It focused on 21 countries that accounted for nearly 77% of the global Covid-19 deaths as of the end of April this year.

The study covered Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, England and Wales, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Spain, the US and Zimbabwe.

It found that because most of those who died due to Covid-10 were adults, little attention had been paid to the impact of the pandemic on the children left behind.

The “tragic consequence” was that the high number of adult deaths meant that more children lost their parents and caregivers to the virus, as it was the case during the HIV/Aids, Ebola and influenza epidemics.

“We observed a rapid escalation in our estimates during our study period: in the final month, the total number of children orphaned or losing caregivers increased by 220 000 from 1.34 million at the end of March to 1.56 million at the end of April.”

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The study notes that about 1 million children were orphaned after losing their parents and about 1.2 million children lost their custodial grandparents or other co-residing grandparents.

“Rates of children losing primary or secondary caregivers were highest in Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, the US, Argentina and Russia,” notes the study, adding that in these countries, at least one in 1 000 children had been affected by deaths associated with Covid-19.

There were five times more children with deceased fathers than deceased mothers. Worryingly, the study also revealed that 23% of the children in the 21 countries were raised by single parents, whose death could have dire consequences.

The study also found that the death of a grandparent was a significant loss for the children, particularly because some of the children in the countries considered by the study were raised by their grandparents.

“In Brazil, 70% of children receive such financial support [from grandparents], yet Brazil ranks second globally for Covid-19 deaths, reducing options for kinship care.

“In the US, 40% of grandparents living with grandchildren serve as their primary caregivers. In the UK, 40% of grandparents provide regular care for grandchildren,” notes the study.

“In Africa and Latin America, custodial grandparents often serve as guardians, caring for grandchildren whose parents migrated for work, died of Aids or other causes, or are separated by conflict or war.”

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Although older people had been prioritised for vaccination programmes across the world, data showed that many countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates might not reach herd immunity for more than four years.

“Thus, Covid-19 will continue to fuel the loss of parents and family members, leaving children whose parents die with fewer options than existed before the pandemic,” notes the report.

The study warns that for children and adolescents who have been orphaned, there is an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide attempts. They are also more vulnerable to domestic, sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

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It recommends that child helplines should remain open, and that there should be programmes that ensure girls are protected from child marriage, unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.

The study also recommends that multilateral organisations, national and local governments, NGOs and faith-based organisations, among other entities, need to incorporate evidence-based programmes into their Covid-19 response plans to address the impact of the pandemic on children who have lost their caregivers because of the virus.

“Throughout this pandemic, children have been falling under the radar. Together, we must advance equitable vaccine delivery, avoid child institutionalisation and support families to care for children with deceased parents or caregivers,” reads the report.


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