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.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24