Johannesburg - Seven out of every 1000 children in South Africa have been orphaned by Covid -19.
Only Peru is higher that SA, with an estimated rate of eight out of every 1000 children orphaned by the disease.
For many of those orphans a life without their parents or caregivers mean facing poverty, sexual violence, HIV infection, mental health challenges and severe distress.
These findings were published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal on Thursday, where with the help of new modelling, researchers now predict that at least 5.2 million children under the age of 18 have experienced the death of a parent or caregiver due to the pandemic.
This study updates estimates from July 2021 and is based on new mortality data from 20 countries.
What it found was that children orphaned by Covid-19 had nearly doubled from May 1, 2021 to October 2021, this when compared to the first 14 months of the pandemic.
The researchers also discovered that the children worst affected were those aged between 10 and 17. Why this was so, according to one of the authors of the paper, Professor Chris Desmond of University of KwaZulu-Natal, is because their parents were likely to be older.
In all countries, children were more likely to have lost a father than a mother.
“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,” said Dr Juliette Unwin, lead author from Imperial College London.
A reason why SA has a high orphan rate, says Desmond, is because South Africans tend to have a large age gap between their children, often leaving them as older parents who are more vulnerable to the virus.
On the ground, organisations that work with children say they have noticed the devastating effects of the pandemic in the country.
“Before, we did experience children losing their parents and caregivers to illnesses and for other reasons but this was definitely not on the scale to the losses which amounted from Covid,” said the director of the Teddy Bear Clinic, Dr Shaheda Omar.
“With HIV, there were many proactive measures such as treatment and awareness, as well as opportunities and resources to address the scourge but with Covid-19, there were no contingency plans.
“We are seeing a range of mental health issues and behavioural disorders with children acting out, being aggressive and engaging in bullying.”
Childline SA national executive officer Dumisile Nala said that the speed of which the virus struck made it difficult for many to cope.
“There have been instances where both the mother and father die shortly after each other and it happens so quickly and it's difficult to process, even more so for children,” she said.
The researchers of the Lancet study hope their findings will help in getting communities to prioritise children affected by deaths of parents and caregivers.
It is here where South Africa can draw on past experiences, in this case what was learnt during the HIV/Aids pandemic.
“When HIV/AIDS started really hitting in numbers the immediate response of many people was that we need more children's homes, which is nonsense. They are people who are willing to care for children within families and in communities,” said Desmond.
“We're not short on childcare, what we're short on is the resources to do it.”
Molo Songololo director, Patric Solomons said to date SA recorded more than 98 000 Covid-19 pandemic related deaths. Most are middle-aged people and the elderly adult population who suffered from serious pre-existing conditions.
“It is unclear how many children have been affected and become orphans as a direct result of Covid-19 related deaths. There are various estimates from 1.5 million to 3.5 million children orphaned in SA and around 400 000 who lost both parents as at March or October last year and more than 4 million globally, with South Africa the second highest in the world and highest in Africa,”he said.
Solomons added that one can conclude SA is experiencing an increase in the number of children who are losing parents or caregivers due to the Covid-19 pandemic and related to crime and accidents. Recent crime stats reveal a high and increased murder rate which also impact on the increase of child orphans in SA.
“Available information are mainly estimates or conflated with all Covid-19 related deaths and there is a need for proper research, data collection and proper analysis of data, to separate minors from adult children who became orphaned,” he said.
Solomons said he hopes that the STATS SA Census 2022 will shed some light on the exact number of orphans in South Africa.
“Molo Songololo hopes that the Lancet research will provide a more accurate picture of the extent of new child orphanhood because of the Covid-19 pandemic; and not rely on projected and estimated information available. Molo Songololo is aware of several children and young people (persons under 18) that we work with, who have lost a parent or caregiver. We are also aware of a few (parents and caregivers) in the targeted communities we work in, Atlantis, Beaufort West, Delft and their surrounding areas, who have died and left children (persons under 18) behind,” Solomons said.
“The loss of a caregiver or breadwinner is devastating for poor children. It increases stress, uncertainty, poverty, hunger, food insecurity and vulnerability; disrupts their home and school life, and puts child orphans at risk of abuse and exploitation. We have had similar high estimates of child orphans during the earlier years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when there was a lack of counselling, testing and medication services available and stigma, shame and fear drove the pandemic under-ground. Fortunately, our childcare and protection system in SA has improved are we are now better equipped and have capacity to identify early children who become orphaned. The challenge remains a lack of access to appropriate support services to address the needs of newly orphaned children in poor and under-resourced families and communities,” Solomons concluded.