She became an orphan before she ever met her parents.
By the time doctors delivered their daughter six weeks early, Daniel and Davy Macias were desperately ill from COVID-19. Davy died first. A few weeks later, her husband succumbed. She was unvaccinated; his family said his status was unclear. They left five children age 7 and under.
These are the casualties absent from the daily tally of pandemic statistics. With at least 4.6 million deaths worldwide, COVID-19 has reshaped the world, most ruthlessly among families with children under 18. Globally, at least 1.5 million kids have lost parents, or primary or secondary caregivers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 120,000 of those children live in the United States. That staggering toll is expected to worsen as the pandemic, now driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, increasingly infects unvaccinated people under age 50 who are most likely to have dependent children. The Maciases were both in their 30s; now their kids are among the orphans of COVID-19.
The United States trails only Mexico, India, and Brazil in children who’ve lost their parents or caregivers to the pandemic. That includes Troy and Charletta Green’s kids. The Detroit couple’s family said they wanted to get vaccinated but never got around to getting their shots. Troy got sick and was hospitalized first, but Charletta deteriorated quickly. Hours after Troy learned that his wife of 22 years died from COVID-19, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Three of the Greens’ seven children are minors. Their older siblings, ranging in age from 18 to 23, will now take care of them.
Parents of four, both Lawrence and Lydia Rodriguez of Texas were unvaccinated. After she was hospitalized, Lydia begged her sister to “Please make sure my kids get vaccinated.” It was the last time they spoke before Lydia died, two weeks after Lawrence. They had 18-year-old twins, a 16-year-old, and an 11-year old.
If it’s unnatural for parents to bury their children, it’s no less of an abomination for kids to be robbed not only of their parents or caregivers, but their fragile sense of home.
In July, The Lancet, a medical journal, published a study of the “secondary impacts” of pandemics, the first analysis about COVID-19 orphans. “Our study establishes minimum estimates — lower bounds — for the numbers of children who lost parents and/or grandparents,” Juliette Unwin, the study’s co-lead author, said in a statement. “Many demographic, epidemiological, and health care factors suggest that the true numbers affected could be orders of magnitude larger.” Low vaccination rates, she said, will result “in millions more children experiencing orphanhood.”
As with every aspect of this pandemic, Black people are disproportionately bearing the brunt of this devastation. In April, researchers reported in JAMA Pediatrics that while Black children constitute about 14 percent of this nation’s population under 18, they make up 20 percent of all children who’ve lost a parent to COVID-19. Without services to deal with such issues as financial instability or child bereavement, this portends a generation of Black children steeped in trauma.
Last weekend, during various memorials for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, we saw and heard from some of the roughly 3,000 children, now adults, who lost parents during the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. Despite a shared legacy of unimaginable tragedy, their stories are different from those of children whose parents are perishing in the COVID-19 era, especially this year.
For the children of 9/11, their parents went to work, got on an airplane, or did their jobs as first responders running toward uncertain danger. They could not have willingly prevented the fate that awaited them.
Yet since the introduction of three highly effective vaccines, that’s not the case for parents getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Whether they’re delaying their vaccination due to resistance or hesitancy, in avoiding the shot they’re not only putting children under 12 at risk, but also potentially inflicting upon them a childhood broken by fear and displacement, their immediate futures determined by the generosity of strangers on GoFundMe.
In a statement, Seth Flaxman, one of the Lancet study’s authors, said, “Out of control COVID-19 epidemics abruptly and permanently alter the lives of the children who are left behind.” These kids, he said, “will grow up profoundly damaged by the experience.”
I don’t believe mothers, fathers, or grandparents dying from COVID-19 wanted to damage their kids. Yet those children have been sentenced for the actions of parents and caregivers who feared the vaccine more than what might become of their children without them.
After Daniel Macias’s death last week, his sister-in-law, Terri Serey, told a Los Angeles TV station, “We were really pulling for Daniel after Davy died. We wanted him to wake up and name his baby girl.” He didn’t, and it didn’t have to be this way.
Instead, that baby girl, who will never know her parents’ embrace, was probably named by the grandparents now raising her and her siblings, orphans of the pandemic.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.