Deaths linked to COVID-19 have left nearly 150 000 children orphaned, UNICEF South Africa said.
However, the number reaches 207 400 when including children who have lost their primary or secondary caregiver, such as a grandparent.
These figures are contained in the latest data modelling from Imperial College London, as part of the Global Reference Group for Children Affected by COVID-19: Joint Estimates and Action.
According to UNICEF South Africa, the tragic figures reiterate the importance of a holistic and child-centred response to the broad-ranging impact of COVID-19 on childhood, particularly to protect and support children who have been left without one or both parents, or primary or secondary caregiver.
“Children’s lives have been devastated by the pandemic in so many ways and for those who have lost parents or caregivers, the deep scars will last forever.
“But with love and care, access to social protection, education and opportunities for growth and development, these children can recover, thrive and realise their full potential,” said UNICEF South Africa Deputy Representative, Muriel Mafico.
UNICEF South Africa said the loss of parental support and loved ones during childhood can have a long-lasting impact on mental and physical health, and children are more likely to experience violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
“A nurturing, protective and stable family environment at home is vital for positive childhood experiences, yet for orphaned children, this is too often a distant dream,” said Mafico.
UNICEF South Africa said it is working with partners to protect every child’s right to live and grow up in an environment that supports their physical, psychological, social and emotional development.
This includes through scaling up access to interventions such as safe parks that provide a protective and caring environment in which children are nurtured by professionals and caregivers, where they can play and receive learning support, counselling and health services.
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) said it is building the capacity of teachers to best support the psychosocial needs of the most vulnerable children in the school environment and in turn ensure school retention.
In addition, the organisation is capacitating staff in primary healthcare facilities and community health workers to provide integrated services to children that best protect their mental and physical health.
It said the increased uptake of the Child Support Grant will help to ensure that the most vulnerable households receive help to alleviate some of the stresses of everyday life.
The organisation said exposing vulnerable youth with access to skills-building opportunities, as well as work and entrepreneurial mentorship and opportunities, is key.
Citing the World Health Organisation (WHO) figures, the NGO said the tragic and increasing number of COVID-19 orphans is also a reminder that COVID-19 is not over, which killed one million people globally in 2022 alone.
According to the organisation, vaccination continues to be the most effective way to prevent serious illness or death.
UNICEF South Africa said it is continuing with its COVID-19 response with the national and provincial Departments of Health to help build further momentum towards the 70% coverage target of the adult population by the end of 2022.
“This includes strengthening vaccine cold chain management and systems, as well as communication and community engagement work to bolster COVID-19 vaccine coverage, as well as routine childhood immunisation.”