(RNS) — More than a million children around the world may have been orphaned by COVID-19, losing one or both parents to the disease or related causes.
Another estimated 500,000 lost a grandparent or another relative who cared for them.
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The numbers are from a new study by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others that highlight another grim reality in the sweeping devastation caused by the ongoing pandemic.
“These new estimates highlight the tremendous impact COVID-19 has had on children around the world,” said Elli Oswald, executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative.
Members of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of faith-based child welfare organizations that includes Bethany Christian Services, World Vision and other nonprofits and ministries, responded this week to the study published Tuesday (July 20) in The Lancet, encouraging Christians to mobilize to care for those children and support surviving family members.
“We know when families are supported during these tragic times, they can provide the love and care a child needs to thrive. The church is best placed to respond to the needs of these children as it carries out the vision we see in scripture of God’s intention for family, and ensures that a child never needs to be placed in an orphanage,” Oswald said.
Researchers from the CDC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the University College London used COVID-19 mortality data from March 2020 through April 2021 and national fertility statistics for 21 countries to offer the first global estimates of the number of children orphaned by the disease.
Their methods were similar to those used by the UNAIDS Reference Group on Estimates, Modelling and Projections to estimate the number of children orphaned by AIDS.
“Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from COVID-19-associated deaths,” according to the study.
Children who have lost a parent or caregiver are at increased risk for disease, physical abuse, sexual violence and adolescent pregnancy, according to a press release accompanying the study. They also risk being separated from their families and placed in orphanages or care homes, which researchers say have been linked to negative effects on social, physical and mental development.
The solution, said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, is “the loving care of a family, not another orphanage.” He pointed to Scripture passages that say God sets the lonely in families and call on Christians to care for those who have been orphaned.
“We urge Christians to support efforts to strengthen vulnerable families and communities, reunify families, and place children without caregivers in loving families, so that children never have to live in orphanages,” Palusky said.
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Losing a loved one and caring for orphaned children also puts “immense” stress on remaining parents and extended family members, added Margaret Schuler, World Vision’s senior vice president of international programs.
“Yet efforts for care must be focused at supporting them in and through their families to prevent unnecessary separation,” Schuler said. “We encourage Christians and the Church to mobilize to keep families together in order to help children thrive.”
The study was published alongside a report by the CDC and other agencies titled “Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021.”