One minute. It’s not a lot of time. We don’t tend to think that anything important can happen in such a short period. But according to a new study published in The Lancet on the 20th of July 2021, a child under 18 is losing a parent or caregiver every 12 seconds globally due to COVID-19. That means that every minute, five children around the world are experiencing the trauma and grief that comes with losing a parent or caregiver.
The study found that as a minimum estimate, 1.5 million children worldwide have experienced the death of a parent, custodial grandparent or another family member who was caring for them as a result of COVID-19. It is expected that the number of children orphaned due to COVID-19 will continue to increase as the pandemic continues.
This should be a serious concern to South Africa. The most recent data from the 2018 general household survey estimates that 11.7%, or around 2 254 886 South African children younger than 18, are orphans. As South Africa currently has 68 192 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the number of orphaned children will also likely increase.
Numerous studies (Worden & Silverman, Nickerson et al, Gray et al.) have shown an increased risk of mental health problems and threats to emotional well-being for children who lose a parent or caregiver. These include anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, a perceived lack of control over what happens in one’s life, as well as increased physical symptoms and the development of stress sensitivity. Parental death in childhood is also associated with an increased long-term risk of suicide, as well as learning and behavioural problems in school.
The collective trauma that children have experienced because of COVID-19, due to increased poverty, school closures, increases in domestic violence, as well as illness and death in those around them, are likely to leave psychological scars that will linger for years, if not lifetimes.
It is more important than ever that we as a society prioritise the emotional and physical well-being of our children, especially those who lose caregivers during the pandemic, to ensure that they may grow up into healthy and whole members of our communities.
Government should urgently prioritise the care and support of orphaned and vulnerable children, and provide increased support to organisations that house and take care of these children. Organisations or individuals working with traumatised children and families should contact HealingLeaves to learn more about our H.E.L.P – Four Stages for Supporting Traumatised Children Programme, to gain practical skills and knowledge to help children cope with trauma in healthy ways. Community members can also contact orphanages or children’s homes in their area to learn more about services they offer, as well as ways in which they can support and contribute to their work.
Some of these organisations include:
SA Children’s Home – SA Children’s Home / SA Kinderhuis | Facebook
RATA Social Services – Rata Social Services | Facebook
DPS Pleegsorg – DPS Huise | Facebook
By prioritising vulnerable children and their care and development, we can ensure that the next generations of South Africans are emotionally and psychologically healthy, and minimise the negative emotional and psychological marks that COVID–19 leaves on them.