Hidden Effects of a Pandemic: Orphanhood from COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Yume Tamiya, Associate Researcher

Since the onset of the pandemic, approximately 50 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have been pushed into extreme poverty, a majority of whom comprise children [13]. There is a strong correlation between high poverty and high COVID-19 mortality [14]. Children in low-income communities in the region are especially at a high risk of further marginalisation, affected by poverty and orphanhood from COVID-19.

More than one million children worldwide have lost their primary caregivers to COVID-19, a staggering figure that needs urgent attention from policymakers [1][2]. According to a real-time COVID-19 calculator, developed by researchers at Imperial College London, estimated numbers of orphans from COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan African countries are on the rise since the onset of the pandemic. The real-time calculator indicates that, as of April 2022, there are 89,400 estimated orphans in Kenya, 371,100 in Nigeria, and 145,000 in South Africa.

© Photo by Dazzle Jam: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photograph-group-of-children-1002061/

While the pandemic may recede, its effects on children orphaned by it will not. Their lives will continue to be affected by the loss of their parents or caregivers who provided homes and basic needs, as well as care and affection [4]. After a parent’s death, children can be subjected to institutionalisation or interpersonal violence, depending on the level or availability of care or support that they receive from family members [5] and other groups. The loss of a caregiver can lead to “mental health problems; shorter schooling; lower self-esteem; sexual risk behaviors; and increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation” [4]. Orphaned children are more susceptible to trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced begging, child labour, and dropping out of school to help their siblings in need of care [8]. Without appropriate, swift interventions, mental health disorders that orphaned children often experience such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic disorder, could worsen even after they reach adulthood [3][6]. According to psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Cullen, failure to provide orphaned children with the support they need, especially in the first two years after an adverse childhood experience, could put them at significant risk for developing mental health problems [7].

Measures have been taken by some governments to assist children orphaned by COVID-19. In Kenya, for example, the government’s cash transfers helped relieve anxiety among orphaned children and improve their psychological wellbeing while providing some degree of security [6][9]. However, on the other hand, current studies on cash transfers to children often romanticise their positive effects, failing to see the negative impacts of cash transfers, such as abuse and exploitation [10]. Cash transfers to orphaned children who engage in child labour are not effective when they are excluded from access to social services while being subject to sexual exploitation or engagement in armed forces or groups [11].

In order to mitigate against the impacts of orphanhood from COVID-19, governments in the region of Sub-Saharan Africa could investigate the extent of the issue of orphanhood from COVID-19 and its impacts on orphaned children; scale up the funding for marginalised children through combination of external and domestic funding, such as global emergency funds from the international financial institutions, since the current scale of funding is insufficient [13]; provide safe, nurturing environments and social services to those in need of kinship or foster care; provide economic support to families affected by the loss of caregivers; enhance financial support to under-resourced social protection sectors, such as the mental health sector in under-resourced settings to provide support to orphaned children affected by COVID-19 [12]; and ensure that interventions are sensitive to the diverse needs of children [4][5].

About the Author

Yume holds a BA in International Development with International Education from the University of Sussex. She has a passion for writing on issues related to human rights, law, and international development. She has been named the 2019 Global Winner in the Social Sciences: Anthropology and Cultural Studies category at The Global Undergraduate Awards, the world’s largest academic awards programme, for her research on the rights of Palestinian children in the Occupied Territories. She was also Highly Commended for two other pieces on the marginalisation of ethnic and racial minorities and women, emerging among the top 10% of global entries.

Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.


[1] Dube, R and Magalhaes, L. (2021). ‘Covid’s Hidden Toll: One Million Children Who Lost Parents’. The Wall Street Journal. 26 September. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-children-orphans-parent-deaths-million-11632675021?mod=e2fb&fbclid=IwAR2q7hq69d5mlIvJETePk9WrVJUtkwr7gOXK48BIISMiOKlr8Ur_XgAVqVE [Accessed 27 September 2021].

[2] Taylor, L. (2021). COVID-19: 1.5. million children have been orphaned by pandemic, study estimates. BMJ. 374. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1871 [Accessed 20 November 2021].

[3] Hillis, S., Unwin, J., Cluver, L., Sherr, L., Goldman, P., Rawlings, L., Bachman, G., Vilaveces, A., Nelson, C., Green, P., and Flaxman, S. (2021). Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021. A joint report of COVID-19 associated orphanhood and a strategy for action. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community/orphanhood-report.pdf

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). ‘The Hidden U.S. COVID-19 Pandemic: Orphaned Children — More than 140,000 U.S. Children Lost a Primary or Secondary Caregiver Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.’ CDC Newsroom. 7 October. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/p1007-covid-19-orphaned-children.html [Accessed 20 November 2021].

[5] NPR. (2021). ‘Pediatric Psychologist On The High Rates Of Children Orphaned By COVID-19.’ NPR. 18 September. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2021/09/18/1038606510/pediatric-psychologist-on-the-high-rates-of-children-orphaned-by-covid-19 [Accessed 20 November 2021].

[6] Kidman, R. (2021). ‘Use HIV’s lessons to help children orphaned by COVID-19.’ Nature. 9 August. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02155-9 [Accessed 20 November 2021].

[7] Cullen, K.R. (2018). Persistent Impairment: Life After Losing a Parent. American Journal of Psychiatry. 175:9. doi: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18050572

[8] Human Rights Watch. (2020). COVID-19 and Children’s Rights. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/09/covid-19-and-childrens-rights [Accessed 21 February 2022].

[9] Shangani, S., Operario, D., Genberg, B., Kirwa, K., Midoun, M., Atwoli, L., Ayuku, D., Galárraga, O. and Braitstein, P. (2017). Unconditional government cash transfers in support of orphaned and vulnerable adolescents in western Kenya: Is there an association with psychological wellbeing? PLOS ONE 12(5): e0178076. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178076

[10] Roelen, K. (2014). Sticks or carrots? Conditional cash transfers and their effect on child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse and Neglect. 38(3), 372–82.

[11] Save the Children. (2012). What Cash Transfer Programming can do to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation. Review and recommendations. Available at: https://www.calpnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/discussion-paper-what-cash-transfer-programming-can-do-to-protect-children-1-1.pdf [Accessed 20 May 2022].

[12] Molebasti, K., Musindo, O., Ntlantsana, V and Wambua, G.N. (2021). Mental Health and Psychosocial Support During COVID-19: A Review of Health Guidelines in Sub-Saharan Africa. Frontiers in Psychiatry.

[13] UNICEF. (2020). COVID-19: A Catastrophe for Children in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cash Transfers and a Marshall Plan Can Help. UNICEF, Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office and West and Central Africa Regional Office. Nairobi, Kenya and Dakar, Senegal. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/esa/media/7626/file/COVID-19-A%20Catastrophe-for-Children-in-SSA.pdf [Accessed 20 May 2022].

[14] Hussey, H., Zinyakatira, N., Morden, E., Ismail, M., Paleker, M., Bam, J. L., London, L., Boulle, A., & Davies, M. A. (2021). Higher COVID-19 mortality in low-income communities in the City of Cape Town — a descriptive ecological study. Gates open research, 5(90):1–12. https://doi.org/10.12688/gatesopenres.13288.1



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

Connecting and empowering people to overcome the norms that lead to poverty, inequality and injustice.