There was a moment in the last presidential debate when Joe Biden cut through the madness for one hot minute, looked at the camera, and said this: “How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died [of] COVID? How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to [them], [so] the nurse [held] the phone up so you could in fact say goodbye?”
While the whole debate gave me an anxiety attack, this moment of clarity from Biden really gave me pause, and I think it gave a lot of other people pause too. I couldn’t help but think about my own family, and what it would mean if my children lost their mother or myself. The sad reality is, Biden was in fact speaking to a heartbreaking number of children who lost their parents to COVID-19.
To put this into perspective, more children in New York State have lost their parents to COVID-19 than during the 9/11 attacks. A study released in September by the United Hospital Fund and Boston Consulting Group examined the impact of the pandemic on children in New York State. According to that study, 4,200 children had a parent or caregiver die of coronavirus between March and July of this year. According to an estimate by New York Magazine, 3,051 children suffered the loss of a parent on 9/11.
Listen, people, that is a shocking comparison.
My father left when I was nine. He was in and out of my life, and in and out of jail, until his death when I was 19. Not having a father in my life impacted me in ways I still can’t define, and his death still haunts me. I cannot help but think of these children who are now without parents because of COVID-19 and not feel a deep sense of empathy.
Suzanne Brundage, Director of UHF’s Children’s Health Initiative and a co-author of the report, said in a press release, “This pandemic is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Losing a parent or caregiver during childhood raises a child’s risk of developing a range of poor outcomes over their lifetime, including poorer mental and physical health.”
And one of the harshest realities of this report is that, like COVID-19 itself, the loss of a parent has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities. Black and Hispanic children in New York State experienced the death of a parent or caregiver at twice the rate of Asian and white children. All of this is heartbreaking in the worst possible way.
Sadly, as you might expect, it’s not just children from New York state who are grappling with parental loss. There are stories all over the nation of children suddenly without a mother or father — and in some cases, both. According to CBS news, back in August, 17-year-old Justin Hunter from the Atlanta area lost both his parents to COVID-19 within four days of each other. In a heartbreaking Twitter post, Hunter said this to his parents: “I hope you know a lot of people looked up to you, including myself.”
According to ABC 7, 14-year-old Isaiah Garcia from Houston also lost both his parents to COVID-19. His mother died first; two weeks later, he lost his father. And sadly, just like Joe Biden said in the debate, he didn’t get the chance to tell them goodbye. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to my mom or my dad now, and that’s what hurt me the most,” Garcia said. He is now being raised by his uncle.
It’s hard to read about these children and not think about your own kids. I have every intention of seeing my children graduate from high school, go on to college, and get married. I want to continue to be part of their lives well into old age. And I have to assume these parents did, too. But when you realize that a lot of children are losing those moments with their parents, it causes this pandemic to become very real, very fast.
Inevitably, more children are going to lose a parent before COVID-19 runs its course. I hear a lot of people saying things like “I don’t believe the numbers” or “It’s just the flu” — but the 4,200 children in New York who have lost a parent will disagree with you.
Right now is the time to take this virus seriously. Right now is the time to double down on mask wearing, and social distancing. We need to work together here if we are going to save lives. These are real people who are suffering. These are real children who are losing their parents. And we should never have to ask how many of these losses were preventable.