Susan Hillis: inspiring hope for children

Elsevier, The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, Volume 7, September 2023
Samarasekera U.

In May, 2020, Susan Hillis received an unsettling call from the director of a faith-based organisation in Zambia. He told her he was very worried about the grandmothers who care for the country's AIDS orphans dying from COVID-19. “I was rather speechless and agreed with him it would be a horrible problem and that I certainly hoped it didn’t happen”, Hillis recalls. Afterwards, she struggled to sleep because she knew mortality associated with COVID-19 was primarily in adults and the impact on parents and grandparents was unknown but probably large. But she also realised that with the right team, she could adapt existing AIDS orphanhood models to “at least generate minimum estimates of children affected by COVID-associated orphanhood”. The result was Hillis and colleagues’ seminal 2021 paper in The Lancet showing that 1·5 million children could be affected by parent orphanhood or caregiver death from COVID-19. The findings, and the group's subsequent papers, have led to policy responses in multiple countries “which is exactly what we want, and we’re hoping that continues to expand”, she says.