COVID-19 threatens to increase malnutrition globally

Updated Jun 21, 2021
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has been top of mind for most Canadians, drawing headlines and daily news coverage as governments across the world fight to contain its impacts.

While global attention is currently fixated on the impacts of COVID-19 itself – infections, deaths, and the impacts of lockdowns – the risk of increased malnutrition looms large for children, especially those in low- and middle-income countries, with potentially long-lasting and harmful impacts on health, well-being, and future global stability. 

Nutrition and food insecurity

Good nutrition is a human right – it should be accessible to everyone, regardless of gender, age, geography, race, or income. It’s also critical for a long and healthy life. At an early age, the right food and nutrients provide a foundation for long-term good health, brain development, and a strong immune system. Every dollar invested in a child’s nutrition sees a return of approximately $30 over their lifespan, as they are able to stay in school and eventually find higher-paying jobs, making strong contributions to a country’s economy. 

When a child is malnourished, he or she is unable to get the right combination of nutrients and energy that are needed for good health and well-being. Sometimes, this can be due to excess eating, causing obesity or other health issues from being overweight. But more commonly, malnutrition occurs when children are unable to get enough of the right food for a healthy diet.  If caught early, malnutrition may not have any long-term impacts. Left unaddressed, children may not grow properly (stunting) or may lose a severe amount of weight (wasting). 

For many children, malnutrition takes place because of food insecurity – when their communities don’t have a consistent and secure food supply chain providing them with the food they need.
A South Sudanese woman measures the arm of a baby in the arms of her mother.World Vision South Sudan’s nutrition project manager Rahab Kimani checks baby Farida’s mid-upper arm circumference, a common tool used to assess a child's nutrition status. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles

Before COVID-19, malnutrition was already a significant concern. In 2019, one in five children globally suffered from malnutrition, and nearly half of all deaths of children under 5 were attributed to undernutrition.  

East Africa has seen repeated desert locust storms that devastated their crops and increased food insecurity, while conflict and instability in the Sahel region has displaced hundreds of thousands, and left millions without adequate nutrition or access to food. 

With the appearance of COVID-19, global food insecurity has increased dramatically due to lockdowns, closures of nutritional support programs, and disruptions of markets and supply chains. Some families don’t have enough food at home to survive the lockdowns. No work means loss of wages and less money to purchase nutritious food. Markets where communities used to shop for fruits and vegetables have closed due to lack of supply. And these problems are global – many Canadian children are now facing these same challenges.
A man is buying food from a woman at a market in Beni, DRC.
Markets like the one pictured here, have closed. Photo: Brett Tarver

The impacts

In the short term, it’s likely that undernourished children will be at greater risk of getting sick or dying from COVID-19. Malnutrition is one of the biggest risk factors of contracting tuberculosis, and it also makes a child nine times more likely to die from diseases like pneumonia than a well-nourished child. Given the respiratory impacts of COVID-19, the same impacts are possible. 

In the long-term, we risk losing the gains that we have made globally on malnutrition. In our Aftershocks report, we looked at the long-term impacts from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, where – like with COVID-19 – an infectious disease resulted in overwhelming the already-strained health systems. More than 28,000 people were infected in just three countries, and over 11,000 people died before the epidemic ended in June 2016.

In Sierra Leone, the Ebola outbreak reduced opportunities to screen for malnutrition, contributing to a two per cent increase in a particularly severe form of malnutrition by the end of the outbreak. Although community screening eventually returned to normal, only one quarter of children were able to access treatment for malnutrition, leading to stunting and higher risks of infectious disease.  If we saw the same increases due to COVID-19, it could lead to an additional 5 million children suffering from malnutrition in 24 of the UN’s highest priority countries. 

We can’t afford to see the same increases in malnutrition – we must ensure that children and their families are fed, protected, and able to withstand the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities. 

What is World Vision doing?

World Vision has been confronting malnutrition globally for decades. We partner with the World Food Programme (WFP) to provide food assistance to those in need, build community programs for nutrition education and monitoring, and tackle the roots of food insecurity through building community gardens, providing farmers with market links, and developing agricultural opportunities for women. 

COVID-19 has challenged these efforts, but we’re not stepping back. Globally, World Vision has launched a US$350 million response plan to combat the effects of the virus. We’ve reached over 36 million people so far, with plans to reach 36 million people more, half of them children. 

We are providing cash, vouchers, food assistance, and care packs where people are isolated or unable to obtain the food that they need. We are continuing to work with our global partners, like the WFP, to ensure the most vulnerable people have access to nutritious food by protecting market-based supply chains wherever possible, and ensuring that those working in agriculture can stay in business. Where this isn’t possible, we are working to ensure that humanitarian food supply chains remain open and aren’t blocked due to conflict or instability.
A Venezuelan woman stands with her two children.Katiuska Garcia, 42, and her children, Fernanda, 14, and Ángel Santiago, 8, received a cash card from World Vision in Manta, Ecuador. The gift card will help this struggling Venezuelan migrant family get through tough economic times brought on by the lockdown and physical distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Photo: Chris Huber

In addition, our network of over 220,000 community health workers (CHW), pastors, faith leaders, and frontline staff are providing key information on preventing COVID-19, to reinforce and protect existing health services, while ensuring that families and children still receive nutritional education and support. Our CHWs are delivering health trainings through WhatsApp, WeChat, mobile gaming apps, and radio broadcasts to ensure that everyone is reached. 

Many of the CHWs and faith leaders are the same ones who helped to eradicate Ebola across multiple countries in Africa. Having seen its impacts, they are ready and willing to fight against COVID-19 for the health and well-being of the children in their communities, and so are we.

What should Canada do?

COVID-19 is impacting many Canadians, whether directly through illness or indirectly through lockdowns and job losses. But it’s important to remember that we can address pressing needs within Canada while also supporting global efforts. We must halt the spread of this virus and prevent the secondary impacts of malnutrition and food insecurity from causing permanent damage to children and their families both here and around world. We want governments like Canada to continue providing international assistance to help keep vulnerable communities safe. 

By responding locally and globally, we can avoid an even bigger humanitarian disaster for millions of people. It’s the Canadian way.

Caroline Marshall co-authored World Vision’s Aftershocks report detailing the potential secondary impacts of COVID-19 on children. She has worked in public health for over ten years, including during the last pandemic, H1N1, and holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Queensland in Australia.

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