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19 lakh Indian kids lost a parent or caregiver to Covid, says Lancet study of 20 countries

Study by researchers from US, UK and South Africa says estimates for number of children affected by Covid-associated orphanhood & caregiver death nearly doubled from May 2021 to October 2021.

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New Delhi: Around 19 lakh (1.9 million) children in India lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19, according to a study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, a UK-based, peer-reviewed medical journal, Thursday.

For the 20 nations analysed for the study, the figure stands at more than 52 lakh (5.2 million).

The study said estimates for the number of children affected by Covid-associated orphanhood and caregiver death nearly doubled between 1 May 2021 and 31 October 2021, compared to the first 14 months of the pandemic. 

Two out of three children orphaned due to Covid-19 are aged 10 to 17 years, according to the study, while three out of four who experienced the death of one parent during the pandemic lost their fathers.

The study was conducted by researchers from the US, UK and South Africa over a 20-month period starting March 2020.

The number of children affected in the 20 countries ranged from 2,400 in Germany to more than 19 lakh (1.9 million) in India. According to the estimated orphanhood cases per capita, the highest numbers were recorded in Peru and South Africa, where 8 and 7 out of every 1,000 children, respectively, were affected.

While the Indian government has not declared overall data on the number of children orphaned by Covid, a total of 3,890 Covid orphans had been registered with the Ministry of Women and Child Development as of 5 February this year, according to a parliamentary response.

Sources in the Ministry of Women and Child Development had told ThePrint last year that 577 children lost both parents to Covid-19 during the second wave.

According to a report quoting National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) numbers, 3,661 children were orphaned between April 2020 and June 2021. This is around the same time the Lancet study was conducted.

In May last year, the Narendra Modi government announced that all children who have lost both parents, the surviving parent, legal guardians or adoptive parents to Covid-19 would receive financial assistance under the PM-CARES for Children scheme.

Also Read: Covid will return ‘like the flu’ after Omicron, but won’t be a pandemic: US researcher in Lancet

‘Covid orphans at risk of poverty, exploitation’

The study emphasised that such children are at an increased risk of poverty, exploitation and sexual violence or abuse, HIV infection, mental health challenges, severe distress, and, in some contexts, face increased vulnerability to gang involvement and violent extremism.

The researchers call for programmes for Covid orphans to be urgently incorporated into pandemic response efforts, including programmes that support economic strengthening, enhanced community and family support, and programmes that avoid placing children in institutional care.

“We estimate that for every person reported to have died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, one child is left orphaned or loses a caregiver. That is the equivalent of one child every six seconds facing a heightened risk of lifelong adversity unless given appropriate support in time,” the lead author of the study, Susan Hillis, who completed this work during her tenure at the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a statement.

‘Estimates likely to be underestimates’

Juliette Unwin, lead author from Imperial College London (UK), said the actual numbers could be much higher than their estimates, and are likely to grow. Real-time updated data suggests the true totals reached 6.7 million or 67 lakh children as of January 2022, she said in a statement. 

“Sadly, as high as our estimates of orphanhood and caregiver deaths are, they are likely to be underestimates, and we expect these numbers to grow as more global data on Covid-19 deaths becomes available. For example, WHO estimates accurate data for Covid-19 deaths in Africa are limited, and the real estimates are likely to be 10 times higher than what is currently being reported,” the statement said.

“While our current study looked at estimates through October 2021, the pandemic is still raging worldwide, which means Covid-19-related orphanhood will also continue to surge,” it added.

‘HIV orphaned 5 million kids in 10 yrs, Covid did the same in 2’

Prior to the pandemic, there were an estimated 14 crore (140 million) orphaned children worldwide, according to the study.

The impact of Covid-19 on orphanhood was first revealed in a study published in July 2021, which estimated that 15 lakh (1.5 million) children had experienced the death of a parent or caregiver between March 2020 and April 2021 as a result of Covid-19.

The Lancet study increases this estimate to more than 27 lakh (2.7 million) children for the same time period by recalculating the figures from updated Covid-19 deaths along with excess mortality data to account for indirect deaths associated with the pandemic.

The team estimated the loss of caregiver grandparents using United Nations’ ‘Household Size and Composition’ database for the proportion of adults aged over 60 years co-residing with children under 18 years, with or without a parent. These proportions were multiplied by Covid-associated deaths in the relevant age group to estimate the number of children affected, conservatively estimating that one death resulted in only one child experiencing caregiver death.

For the entire 20-month period of the study, the team estimates a minimum of 3,367,000 or 33.67 lakh children experienced the loss of a parent. A further 1,833,300 or 18.33 lakh children were affected by the death of a grandparent or older adult caregiver living in their own home. Overall, the number of children affected by the death of a caregiver due to Covid-19 exceeded the number of reported Covid deaths.

“It took 10 years for 5 million children to be orphaned by HIV/AIDS, whereas the same number of children have been orphaned by Covid-19 in just two years. These figures do not account for the latest wave of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, which may push the true toll even higher. We need to act swiftly to identify the children behind these numbers, so they can be given the support they need to thrive,” another author of the study, Lorraine Sherr from University College London, said in a statement.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Parents are increasingly anxious about sending children back to school, not only due to Covid


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