COVID-19 and the risk of intergenerational malnutrition

The pandemic has put millions of children at risk of malnutrition which could have devastating consequences.

Volunteers load non perishable foods in green grocery bags for a school student food programme at the Houston Food Bank in Houston, US on October 14, 2020 [File: AP/Michael Wyke]

The calendar is about to turn the page over to a new year and that new year brings hope for a world currently gripped by a pandemic that has wreaked havoc for months. COVID-19 has made 2020 the year we wish we could forget but never will. With the roll-out of vaccines, the end of the pandemic and its related global disruptions seem to be in sight. But not everyone will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

While COVID-19 infections may have had the worst impact on the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, the disruptions it caused and continue to cause have been most severe on the world’s vulnerable, especially mothers, pregnant women and children in low- and middle-income countries.

Why is this? Because of the pandemic’s impact on nutrition.

The pandemic is really three crises in one. First, the economic crisis has led to job loss, income loss and a reduction in the global gross domestic product (GDP). Second, a food system crisis has disrupted food supplies and limited the availability of food in markets, especially nutritious foods, while the price of food has also increased. Third, the health crisis and the related lockdowns have led to reduced access to health and nutrition services and limited health resources have been diverted to front-line prevention and treatment of COVID-19. These crises have been particularly pronounced in countries in the Global South.

How is this triple threat affecting nutrition? The Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, a group of nutrition, economics, and food and health system experts who share a deep concern about the potentially devastating impacts of the crisis on nutrition, has been actively researching the scale and reach of COVID-related nutrition challenges. What we found is not encouraging. The consortium is projecting that the COVID-19 crisis could result in a nutrition crisis for low- and middle-income countries in the next three years and beyond.

Recent findings from the consortium published as a pre-print in Nature Foods project that by 2022 this nutrition crisis could result in an additional 9.3 million wasted and 2.6 million stunted children. Wasting or acute malnutrition is still one of the biggest killers among children in low- and middle-income countries. The increase in the number of wasted children could result in an additional 168,000 child deaths.

The pandemic will affect maternal nutrition as well, with 2.1 million additional maternal anemia cases, and 2.1 million children born to mothers with a low body-mass index, putting these children at a disadvantage from the very start. These additional cases of anemia during pregnancy would result in $79m in lost productivity between 2020 and 2022, further exacerbating the economic crisis and the subsequent impact on access to nutritious foods, health services and more.

If we do not act now, we run the risk of reversing years of progress and letting inequalities increase. We would lose a whole generation, as the damage of undernutrition cannot be undone.

So, what can we do? We can stand together and invest in what works – in what gives us the best return on our investment and in what will be a catalyst for all our other investments: health, education, productivity. We must invest in nutrition.

With GDP losses come difficult fiscal decisions but now is not the time to hold back funding for international assistance from donor countries, nor for in-country nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive development programmes.

Our research estimates an additional $1.2bn in nutrition funding is needed per year for the next three years, over and above the Investment Framework for Nutrition 2017 estimate of $7bn needed annually to achieve the World Health Assembly 2025 nutrition targets. This funding can be used to keep food markets working, especially for fresh foods, and promoting nutritious, safe, and affordable diets.

We can invest in improving maternal and child nutrition through pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood. We can use the funds to identify and treat children who are at risk of wasting and stunting earlier. We can make sure we provide vulnerable children with nutritious and safe school meals, helping them learn. We can leverage social protection programmes for access to nutritious diets and essential nutrition services.

If we do not make these investments, our research anticipates major future productivity losses of almost $30bn. As we try to build a post-pandemic global economy, we cannot really afford a productivity loss that large.

We already know good nutrition is the foundation for a healthy life, which leads to healthy and thriving communities and countries. The impacts we are seeing now because of COVID-19 will have implications far into the future. Children who are irreversibly damaged by malnutrition today will not do as well in school, be more prone to diet-related chronic disease like Type-2 diabetes and be much more likely to live in poverty. And as adults, they are more likely to have children who themselves are malnourished.

If we do not reverse malnutrition in children in the short term, we are giving COVID-19 a terrible generational and intergenerational legacy. We need to act now for nutrition to deny COVID that devastating legacy. Some countries have already made commitments to fund global nutrition, including Canada, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Senegal. In 2021, we need others to join with their own investments and we must stand together for nutrition.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.