MediaFrolic’s Michel Martin speaks with Rachel Kentor, child psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, about children who have lost their primary caregivers to COVID-19.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We will move from the story of a child with a complicated beginning to the story of the many children facing an uncertain future due to COVID-19. More than one and a half million children around the world have lost at least one parent, grandparent, or other caregiver to COVID-19. That comes from a study published this summer in the science journal The Lancet. It is said that nearly 114,000 of these children live in the United States. Only Mexico, Brazil and India are countries with more children orphaned from COVID-19 deaths.
Rachel Kentor is a child psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. She posted a comment in response to The Lancet study, “Answering the Call to Support Youth Orphaned by COVID-19,” and Professor Kentor is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
RACHEL KENTOR: Absolutely. Happy to be here.
MARTIN: Could you briefly tell us a little more about what the Lancet Study says or what the Lancet Study says about children who have lost their caregivers to the virus that prompted your comment?
KENTOR: Sure. What this study looked at – They used various population statistics and extrapolated global estimates of the orphan rates of COVID-19, and one of the things that was really unique was looking at not just parents but caregivers who were at home too. And this is such an important aspect, especially because we know that in different cultures around the world there are different extended family members who may live at home and have a primary caregiver role. And so it really took this global aspect to see how many children were orphaned and to what extent, whether they were one parent, both parents or other caregivers in the household.
MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the points you made in your comment, which was also published in The Lancet, notes that media attention has been focused on adult COVID-19 mortality, but less on it what happens to their children when these adults die. So what are some of the most pressing needs for children who are left without carers? Maybe this is intuitively obvious to some people, but I think we should talk about it anyway.
KENTOR: So if these children are left without a reference person, whether it is just one parent, whether they are both parents or reference persons who are at home, do we have to look at the basic needs? How will the child be cared for after this death? Do they have access to other family members? Can you get support, things like that? And especially in other countries we are seeing quite high rates of negative consequences in terms of interpersonal violence, institutionalization, etc., where children – their everyday life can change drastically.
MARTIN: I’m trying to set a precedent for something like this that people might remember. I don’t know of any other way to describe this as some kind of mass sickness and death, and the next thing that comes to mind could be HIV and AIDS. But in the United States, I’m not sure that so many people who have been affected have been at the parenting stage of their lives. And I’m just wondering, is there any precedent you can fall back on to describe what this experience might be like for people who are going through it now?
KENTOR: I think that’s a great question, and when we think about the United States, the next analogy that comes to mind is, frankly, September 11th – kind of a national crisis that has shaped a generation of children Only grew up with the TSA requirements, taking off your shoes at the airport, things like that, where a generation was really shaped by this event. And I think it’s the same now – right? – in young children. I had 2 year olds and 3 year olds walking in and they just knew they were wearing a mask. And so they grab their mask before leaving their house, just like they get their backpack. And so I think there is this shared experience that makes it unique from things like cancer, other deaths.
MARTIN: So you are saying that it doesn’t just apply to individuals. This could affect a whole generation of people and their way of finding their way around the world. But – the other question I had for you – one of the things that made dealing with HIV and AIDS so difficult is the stigma and that, you know, folks – I think people of a certain age all remember to the stories. I mean, people who don’t want kids to go to school with them – is the same thing happening here? I know it’s still kind of – well, we’ve been in it for 18 months. Are you seeing any signs of a stigma associated with people dying from COVID? And how does that affect your children?
KENTOR: Absolutely. To reintroduce the comparison of cancer over and over again, there is no stigma surrounding cancer, is there? Because we know that this is a disease that can affect anyone. And while COVID is also a disease that can affect anyone, it has become such an unnecessarily polarizing thing that happens. And this is how we see this distress or discord around vaccination. When a parent dies, are there many judgments that they likely didn’t vaccinate? Or they weren’t wearing masks. You were unsure. And so I can almost imagine that there could be a similar reaction to the stigma children get after losing a parent to suicide.
MARTIN: So your contribution is partly a call to people to do more to support young people orphaned by COVID-19. What are some of the things that people would like to think about or do as we continue to live this experience?
KENTOR: The # 1 thing, if there is any advice I could give to existing colleagues, parishioners, paediatricians, it is to be open about death – so be really open with children about what death means and what ? happens, but they’re also not afraid to talk to them about the person they lost afterwards. We – as a society – often deviate from talking about death. And this is an opportunity for global reckoning and an understanding of how we communicate with these children. How do we support them afterwards?
MARTIN: This is Rachel Kentor. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a child psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. Professor Kentor, thank you very much for talking to us about this important topic.
KENTOR: Thank you for having me.
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