Counting orphaned children after the pandemic

Published online 31 August 2022

Poverty, non-communicable diseases and low vaccination rates increase the risk of children being orphaned due to COVID-19 deaths.

Letizia Diamante

A visualization of the COVID-19 virus.
A visualization of the COVID-19 virus.
Fusion Medical Animation, Unsplash, CC0 (
There is a higher risk of children being orphaned due to deaths from COVID-19 in countries with higher poverty rates, lower vaccine coverage and greater burden of non-communicable diseases in people of reproductive age, according to a new study.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus can quickly spread throughout households, but adults are more likely to die from COVID-19 than their children. It is estimated that more than 1,130,000 children lost one or both parents, caregivers or custodial grandparents between March 2020 and April 2021. 

Researchers of the Australian National University and the Centre for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives used a previously developed COVID-19 orphanhood calculator to estimate the ratio of orphaned children per COVID-19 deaths (OPD) in 139 countries. They also analysed the factors associated with a higher risk of COVID-19 orphanhood. 

They found that the risk of orphanhood was more than 17 times higher in poorer countries. COVID-19 orphanhood was also associated with the proportion of people of reproductive age suffering from non-communicable diseases, like hypertensive heart disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease. This risk was higher in countries with lower second dose vaccination coverage, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Western Pacific regions.

“We found that the Eastern Mediterranean region had some of the greatest variation in OPD, and massively varying vaccination coverages,” says data analyst, Callum Lowe of the Australian National University. For example, Bahrain’s estimated OPD is below 0.25, while Sudan and Afghanistan have an OPD of nearly 2, meaning that every COVID-19 death led to almost 2 orphans. “It is worrying that this risk of orphanhood is higher in poorer countries, which likely have weaker social support systems,” adds Lowe.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a number of challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean related to surveillance, reporting, diagnostics, access to care, equitable distribution and access to COVID-19 vaccines, among others,” says virologist, Nada M. Melhem of the American University of Beirut, who was not involved in this study. “This means it is important to cautiously interpret the data, since fertility rate estimates are lacking in many countries. However, it is even more important to use this study to enhance data science and management, and to invest in multidisciplinary and integrated health programmes in communicable and non-communicable diseases.” 


Lowe, C. et al. COVID-19 orphans—Global patterns associated with the hidden pandemic. PLOS Glob Public Health 2(8), e0000317. (2022).