“Papa died last night, but his death is not the end.”
Those are the first words Veronica Fletcher uttered to her three children after her husband, Joseph Fletcher, died from Covid-19 on April 11, 2020.
“We’re going to keep papa’s name alive,” Fletcher, 49, later told her children. “He lives in us.”
The Fletchers’ 17-year-old son, Joshua, recalled the day his mother told him about the death of his “papa”: “It’s so real, but not real at the same time,” he said. He says he felt compelled to step into his father’s shoes as the eldest child.
“Being a better role model for my siblings,” he told CNN. “Instilling things that I learned from my father that they might not have the opportunity to have because they didn’t have as much time with him that I did.”
Joshua, his younger brother, Zachary, 14, and sister, Maddie, 10, are among the estimated 238,500 Covid orphans in the United States whose lives have been upended in the past three years by the loss of a parent or primary caregiver, according to the Imperial College London COVID-19 Orphanhood Calculator. Globally, there have been more than eight million Covid orphans since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020.
Orphanhood increases the likelihood of poverty, abuse, delayed development, mental health challenges and reduced access to education, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Veronica Fletcher grew up an orphan – her father was not present during her childhood and her mother died when she was nine.
“To be able to usher my children through this loss, it comes from 40 years of pain and knowing what that little nine-year-old girl needed and received,” said Fletcher as she recalled the day she learned of her mother’s death. “To lose a parent is traumatic, and the way the parents were lost during the pandemic, to have to grieve in isolation, that compounds the pain exponentially.”
Covid orphans need ‘much more’
Christopher Kocher is honoring those who died from Covid and supporting those who survived through his organization, COVID Survivors for Change. The group offers resources and programs to families like the Fletchers. It also pushes for legislative and cultural change. Kocher says much more needs to be done for Covid orphans.
“I was in New York on 9/11. I know how much the city and the nation stepped up to support those families,” Kocher told CNN. “We need to see something similar here. We’re fighting to make sure that we hear a lot more from the president, from the states around the country and from local communities to make sure that they are providing the support that these children need.”
Targeted efforts are gaining traction in many states, albeit slowly.
California state Sen. Nancy Skinner helped her state become the first in the country to pass legislation in June 2022. She introduced a bill strengthening the HOPE (Hope, Opportunity, Perseverance and Accountability) Account law she authored last year. That law made California the first in the nation to create savings accounts for children who lost a parent or guardian to Covid. The California State Budget Act of 2022-23 included $100 million to fund the HOPE program.
California is one of six states that accounts for half of national caregiver loss. New York is another state and has become the second in the nation to introduce legislation that would fund scholarships for children who lost a parent or caregiver to Covid. Each qualifying student would be eligible for a scholarship that covers the equivalent cost of SUNY tuition, plus room and board, books as well as supplies.
New York’s legislation, if approved, would come too late for Joshua Fletcher’s first year of college. “I got accepted into schools that I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t afford to go to them because papa died,” he said. However, Joshua would be eligible for his remaining years of college.
Asian, Hispanic and Black families are more likely to experience a loss, with Black families, like the Fletcher family, twice as likely to suffer from a Covid death, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Pain is pain, trauma is trauma,” Veronica Fletcher said. “This power is turning your pain into purpose. Those are the kinds of lessons that are helping my children to find hope, to be resilient, to know that they’re not alone. It helps you to help someone else.”
It’s why Fletcher now finds support through external groups, such as COVID Widow Sisters, which connects grieving wives across the country. Fletcher also plans to start her own organization, Widows Tears Collective, a support group for women who have lost loved ones to the illness.
“Especially early on the pandemic, you didn’t get to say goodbye. You didn’t get to be in the hospital. You didn’t get to hold their hand. That loss impacts you dramatically and sits with you for a really long time,” Kocher said. “When that loss is for a young person, someone who’s losing a parent, it’s a really different kind of loss.”