Symbolic Street Art Photo by Craig Blankenhorn
Symbolic Street Art Photo by Craig Blankenhorn

COVID has revealed in the starkest manner the despicable true nature of our health inequities. While media reporting on the pandemic has focused on the primary impact – morbidity – the secondary impacts will be with us for decades. The Center for Disease Control warned us of the “Hidden pandemic of Orphanhood” in July and now the consequences are being felt among the extended families of the dead. More than a million children worldwide have lost a primary or secondary caregiver during the pandemic, which has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. And new data from Lancet reveals that children of color bear an unequal burden of COVID-19. It isn’t much of a surprise that African-American and Latino children are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. “COVID Orphan” is now an actual sociological phenomenon as a result of the pandemic, and communities of color in the future are going to have to develop strategies on dealing with the fallout.

Because of the insidious nature of this respiratory virus, with primary caregivers in families less immune than their children, we are left with the prospect of tens of thousands of orphans (and counting). The unvaccinated are a big part of this. And a startling number of these orphans, because of the peculiar health inequities of the American medical system, will be children of color. Witness — Daniel Macias, 39, and Davy Macias, 37, a couple from California, who died two weeks apart. They leave five kids orphaned, including a one-week old baby. Also — Troy and Charletta Green, an African-American couple living in Detroit married for 22 years, succumbed the disease, leaving behind seven children. A GoFundMe page seeking to cover the costs of their double funeral now exists as digital testament to their family tragedy.

Donation to Orphans, Photo by MONUSCO

The phenomenon is international, but it affects us deeply here in America. The Lancet study found that Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, Iran, USA, Argentina and Russia all had primary caregiver death rates of at least one per 1000 children. “Globally, from March 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, we estimate 1, 134 000 children (95% credible interval 884 000–1 185 000) experienced the death of primary caregivers, including at least one parent or custodial grandparent,” the report reads. The team for the report includes researchers from the CDC, USAID, the World Bank and University College London. They counted deaths in 21 countries, counting for more than 76% of all COVID-19 cases. Compared to other countries, the study found that the United States has the fourth-highest number of kids orphaned by COVID-19, behind only Mexico, Brazil and India.

America, a country of almost unimaginable wealth and resources, has suffered immensely from the pandemic. Every day is a new story of COVID orphans, or, even more frequently these days, “Another COVID Orphan.”  An April Research Letter, titled “Estimates and Projections of COVID-19 and Parental Death in the US” in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics (JAMA Pediatrics) is brutal in its data. The paper, written by Rachel Kidman, Rachel Margolis, Emily Smith-Greenaway and Ashton M. Verdery, looked at COVID-19 deaths from February 2020 through February 2021. They found as many as about 43,000 American children lost at least one parent to COVID-19. “The burden will grow heavier as the death toll continues to mount,” the article warns. “Black children are disproportionately affected, comprising only 14% of children in the US but 20% of those losing a parent to COVID-19.”

It gets worse. One million children have been affected by COVID in the last five weeks. And in a recent analysis of 281 pediatric patients from across eight hospitals in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, scientists from Yale and other pediatric centers found that three out of four children hospitalized with severe COVID cases were Black or Hispanic. The precise number was 23.3% Black and 51% Hispanic.

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