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Children of COVID-19

The pandemic’s devastating effects and how we can respond

Jedd Medefind

Jedd Medefind

Among the most tragic ironies of COVID-19 is the disparity between the direct and the indirect impact of the virus upon children. The former has been remarkably modest, the latter catastrophic.

A study in July’s volume of the Lancet estimates that 1.1 million children1https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)01253-8/fulltext were orphaned by COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic—losing at least one parent or custodial grandparent. In every country surveyed, more fathers were lost than mothers—at least by double. In some countries, the ratio was 5-to-1.  

The rates at which children were orphaned varied widely between countries. For example, at the time of the study, only 1 in every 1,666 children in England and Wales had lost a parent or primary caregiver. That number was 1 in every 286 children in Mexico; 1 in 196 in South Africa; and 1 in 98 in Peru.   

Differences in the development levels of countries, including their health systems and economies, no doubt played a part in these disparities. But the causes of variances defied easy explanation. Some of the starkest differences came between countries sharing many apparent similarities. For example, South Africa’s rate of orphanhood was more than 10 times that of neighboring Zimbabwe. Likewise, children in Peru were more than four times as likely to be orphaned than those in neighboring Columbia, even though Peru exercised some of the strictest lockdown policies in the world.  

There is reason for concern that this impact will grow worse before it gets better, especially in the developing world. At first, COVID-19 hit hardest in wealthy and/or industrialized countries. That center of gravity has shifted decisively. Now the highest death rates are consistently in developing countries.2https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-resilience-ranking/

This comes on the heels of a year and a half of local lockdowns and global stagnation that devastated the economies of many developing nations. For more than a half century, the income of these countries has risen steadily. Since the advent of COVID-19, however, it has fallen for the first time in 60 years.3https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/08/covid-19-to-plunge-global-economy-into-worst-recession-since-world-war-ii And while economic growth has lifted millions from poverty in recent decades, the UN now predicts that the economic impact of the pandemic could pull as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty (earning less than $2/day).4https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-05-11/more-than-a-billion-people-escaped-poverty-in-the-last-20-years-the-coronavirus-could-erase-those-gains Even with rapid vaccination—which appears to be a near impossibility in the poorest parts of the world—the impact of both COVID-19 and public response to it will continue to create severe economic and social fallout for years to come.

COVID-19’s indirect effect on children has been no less striking in the United States.5https://cafo.org/2021/04/06/how-has-covid-19-impacted-the-most-vulnerable-children-in-america/ A new study released just last month projected that more than 120,000 American children lost at least one parent or primary caregiver.6https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2021/10/06/peds.2021-053760

As an immense range of studies confirm, children who’ve lost their parents consistently stand among the most vulnerable individuals in their society. Even when a surviving parent or relative is able to care for an orphaned girl or boy, the child faces a dramatically higher statistical likelihood of virtually every ill—from exploitation to poverty to mental illness to homelessness.7https://asclepiusopen.com/clinical-research-in-psychology/volume-3-issue-1/4.pdf

This tragic reality reminds us why Scripture emphasizes so often the call to provide special protection and care for orphans: not only those who’ve lost both parents, but also those who’ve lost one parent—often referred to in the Bible as “the fatherless.”

Of course, COVID-19’s ripple effects upon children weren’t limited to those whose parents died. From deep educational losses and rising obesity to doubled rates of youth anxiety and depression, few children came out unscathed from school closures and other isolation-prompting policies.8https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning; https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-childhood-obesity-ef3d426b5580b72f76eb1207be1af24b; https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2782796 For children in the U.S. foster system—many of whom already lacked stability and strong social ties—the effects have been particularly harsh.9https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-pandemic-roiled-the-foste 

Wherever one looks in the world, a remarkably similar reality seems to have played out across vastly differing continents, countries, and communities. Even as child vulnerabilities rose, protections for children diminished. As a study in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect concluded after reviewing an array of both high- and low-income countries worldwide, “Risk factors for children appeared to increase while there were often substantial deficits in CPS responses . . .”10https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0145213421001514

All of this confirms a simple, age-old truth: in any crisis, vulnerable children are most always among the hardest hit. 

An invitation to care for children

That reality, however, is not only a cause for heartbreak. It’s also an invitation. This sorrow that is as old as time also includes a timeless call. As the prophet Isaiah enjoined more than 2,500 years ago, “Defend the cause of the fatherless.” When a person responds to this call, they join God in work he is already about. As expressed in Psalm 68, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. He sets the lonely in families.”  

Faithful followers of Christ are doing this in vibrant ways all over the world. I interact daily with organizations, churches, and families around the world who’ve stepped up dramatically over the past 18 months—both serving locally and supporting work globally. This ranges from churches and nonprofits pioneering new models of virtual foster parent recruiting, training, and support in the U.S. to groups creating compelling new approaches to support for children and families in the thick of the pandemic worldwide.11https://research.cafo.org/care-reform/covid-challenge-grants/ These and countless others are living the call to generosity and service that Christians at their best have modeled amidst crises all throughout history.

How can the rest of us join in, too? Here are three ways anyone can make a difference.

1. Pray. Lift up the most vulnerable children in your community and around the world—orphans, foster youth, and others who lack the protection and care of family. Ask that every hurting child and struggling family will experience God’s tangible love through his people.  

2. Support. Especially in times of crisis, small gifts can go a long way. From ministries engaging local foster care to trusted organizations serving children and families around the globe, you can be a part of work both near and far.

3. Hands-on engagement. As we often say at CAFO, not everyone is called to foster or adopt, but everyone can do something. Help foster, adoptive, and kinship families with meals, babysitting, errands, or other support. Aid and encourage struggling biological families. Serve as a mentor or CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for a foster youth. There are few things more rewarding than getting personally involved.12https://cafo.org/members/?focus=u-s-foster-care; https://cafo.org/member

In any crisis, vulnerable children are among the hardest hit, and the current pandemic is no exception. For Christians, these tragedies around us carry both challenge and opportunity. The local church in every nation has both the calling and the community capable of making a world of difference—restoring broken families, strengthening struggling families, welcoming children into new families whenever needed, and sharing the hope-filled news of the gospel. That’s what Christians at their best have done amidst crises in every era. I’m confident we’ll do it again in this one. 

Jedd Medefind serves as president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.