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CDC Researcher Susan Hillis on How People of Faith Can Support COVID Orphans

COVID orphans

(RNS) — Susan Hillis, a member of the COVID-19 International Task Force at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remembers the phone call she received from a director of a non-governmental organization in Zambia.

The NGO director was fearful for the children in Zambia. So many of them had lost their parents to AIDS and were now being cared for by grandparents. But with COVID-19 taking the lives of the elderly in particular, he worried, who would be left to care for the children?

That’s what led Hillis and other researchers from the CDC — along with the World Health Organization and a number of academic institutions and NGOs — to launch a study to determine how many children had been orphaned by causes related to COVID-19, according to Hillis.

Their report, released last week, estimated more than 1.5 million children around the world lost a parent or grandparent who lived with and cared for them in the first 14 months of the pandemic.

“We began to realize this is really a hidden pandemic no one has measured and no one is advocating for,” said Hillis, who has a PhD. in epidemiology and whose work addresses HIV/AIDS, violence prevention and orphaned and vulnerable children.

Hillis, who also coordinates faith and community initiatives for the CDC, describes herself as a Christian and regularly spends her time off volunteering around the globe with faith-based organizations. That includes collaborating with Pastor Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church in California to address those orphaned in the countries most impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

She spoke with Religion News Service about how her Christian faith connects with her work for the CDC and how people of all faiths can support children and families devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk a bit about your faith and how it informs your work?

I would say my Christian faith is the singular driving, motivating, sustaining and rewarding value that drives my service at home, at CDC and also globally.

I do think faith undergirds a lot of values that are important and relevant for the kind of work we do at CDC: compassion, excellence, humility and collaboration. I think anyone with authentic faith has a similar kind of dedication to addressing disparities, inequities and areas of extreme need. What we would probably say, in a faith vernacular, is paying attention to what Jesus talks about in Matthew as “the least of these” in terms of where there is extreme need.

Can you help put the numbers in this report into perspective for readers?

What we found was staggering. Between March 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021, we found that the roughly 3 million deaths had left behind 1.5 million children who were either orphaned or had experienced the death of a grandmother or grandfather who lived with them and helped provide their care. Basically, it was that same group this NGO director was so worried about. What he was worried about was happening.