By Chioma Obinna
The World Health Organisation, WHO, and the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, have continued to express concern at the potential impact of COVID-19 on hunger, which is likely to escalate the burden of malnutrition among children, particularly in Nigeria.
They also note that the impact of the disease is expected to be more among those grappling with malnutrition, whereas widespread hunger and malnutrition will likely increase because of movement restrictions.
Today, COVID-19 is surging in Nigeria, thus threatening livelihoods and household economies. Like crisis-amidst-crisis, Boko Haram insurgency and killer herdsmen activities across communities continue to scare farmers from the farms in a way that adds to the challenge.
Sunday Vanguard examines how COVID-19 crisis and hunger have affected the well-being of children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increasing nutritional challenges across the world, particularly in Low Income and Middle-Income Countries, LMICs.
While it has disrupted every aspect of human life, the case of providing good nutrition in many Nigerian homes has become a ghost chase. Having three square meals a day has become a big challenge for almost every home.
Today, many children are suffering from hunger under the glaring watch of their parents, no thanks to COVID-19 disruption that has significantly increased food insecurity by affecting the production and sale of nutritional and food products while leaving millions of families on nutrient-poor alternatives.
In Nigeria, the situation is not different. For the likes of six-year-old Victoria and her family, good food has disappeared from their tables.
Victoria, who lives with her mother, Mrs. Edna, a widow and mother of two other children – Chris, 9 months, and Ben, 4 years – is in dire need of a meal that can satisfy her quest.
As you read this article, Victoria and millions of Nigerians do not know what today holds for them.
One question that keeps echoing in their minds is, Will there be food today? Their condition is so bad that they are not waiting to have a balanced diet but anything to satisfy their hunger.
Many lost their fathers (breadwinners) during the COVID-19 lockdown and their mothers (housewives) cannot afford to feed them.
Victoria, Chris and Ben, who reside in one of the slums in Lagos, may forever live with the consequences of poor nutrition.
Each day, while their mates are fed with nourishing foods, all they get is N100 each to buy food until their mother returns from wherever she has gone to look for the resources to cater for the family in the evening.
Breakfast is described as a good start of the day and has many health benefits for children and even adults.
Sadly, Victoria and her siblings take their breakfast around noon, a strategy the mother adopted to ensure that it takes them till the dinner time.
“I and my brother don’t eat breakfast. We are only given N100 each to buy food to eat when it is noon. Sometimes one of our neighbours will give us garri to smoke without sugar”, Victoria said.
The children’s condition grew worse the moment COVID-19 came and their late father lost his job in one of the factories in Lagos.
“I knew my husband was not going to survive it. Can you imagine watching your family, particularly your children going to bed hungry? He had a stroke and we could not afford treatment. He was the only child of his parents. He died weeks after,” Victoria’s mother told Sunday Vanguard amidst tears.
According to her, coping with family needs since then has not been easy. “When my son (Chris) turned 4 months old, I tried to get something done. I now fry yam at the bus stop close to my house but the cost of foodstuff has eaten deep into the small capital a friend gave me to start the business”, she said.
“This is why I decided to give them N100 each to buy something until in the evening when I must have made some money to cook small soup.”
Meanwhile the reality is that if nothing urgent is done to change the conditions of Victoria and her siblings, they may be increasing the percentage of malnourished children in Lagos put at 6.6 per cent by the 2018 National Demographic Health Survey, NDHS,
In Lagos today, a total of 17.3 per cent of children are stunted.
According to experts, if nothing is done to rescue Victoria and other Nigerian children in their category from hunger, their physical and brain development, etc. may be affected even in adulthood.
To a Principal Health Officer, Dr. Monica Omo-Irefo, the current state of malnutrition in the country is on the rise, exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Malnutrition results from a diet in which one or more nutrients are either insufficient or excessive to the body’s needs, such that the diet causes health problems”, Omo-Irefo said.
She posited that since the COVID-19 pandemic and the initial restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of the virus, there have been a decrease in access to food in Nigeria.
The expert explained that the levels of protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) will likely continue to increase as men, women and children are vulnerable to both coronavirus and nutrient deficiencies.
She said maternal prenatal nutrition and the child’s nutrition in the first three years of life are crucial factors in a child’s neurodevelopment and lifelong mental health.
And not getting enough nutrients early in life, in her opinion, can have an impact that lasts a lifetime.
According to UNICEF, “In Nigeria, malnutrition is a direct or underlying cause of 45 per cent of all deaths of under-five children.”
In actual fact, Nigeria has the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 per cent of children under five, according to the UN agency.
It also notes that an estimated 2 million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every 10 children affected are currently reached with treatment.
However, there have been plenty of efforts to eradicate hunger, attain food security and improve nutrition.
The most ambitious yet is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but nutrition is central to the actualisation of the sustainable development agenda.
The SDGs were put in place in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and intended to be achieved by the year 2030.
They are interconnected.
This means that action in one area will affect outcomes in others.
The goal for SDG 1, End Poverty, and SDG 2, Zero Hunger, are of particular interest and ensure access by all people, but in particular, the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round by 2030.
Unfortunately in Nigeria today, a major cause of malnutrition, especially among children, is protein deficiency which Victoria and many others may suffer.
Protein is widely regarded as an essential building block of life.
It is found in literally every cell of the body.
It is a macro-nutrient, that is, one of the three nutrients found in food that the body needs in large amounts.
But the issue remains that Victoria and other children feeding on just anything are not really getting enough nutrients. And COVID-19 has worsened their situation.
A report by the Nigeria Protein Awareness Campaign shows that “51 per cent of respondents do not have adequate protein-rich foods due largely to high cost”.
The report also shows that the fundamental factors determining the necessity of meal items consumed across the country are availability (79 per cent) and affordability (68 per cent). The report indicates carbohydrates are the most consumed food amongst Nigerians.
Consequently, health watchers fear that, in a country with a weak health system and absence of social security, Nigeria may not recover fast from another malnutrition crisis nationwide.
They are of the view that COVID-19 is making access to and availability of food more challenging for people worldwide, and undesirable situation that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future as an aftershock of the pandemic.
They posit that economic, food, and health system disruption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to continue to exacerbate all forms of malnutrition.
Worse still, estimates from the international food policy research institute suggests that because of the pandemic, an additional 140 million people will be thrown into living in extreme poverty on less than 1.90$ per day in 2020.
The World Food Programme had reported that the number of people in LMICs facing acute food insecurity will nearly double to 265 million by the end of 2020.
In a study entitled, ‘A Crisis within a Crisis: COVID-19 and Hunger in African Children’, researchers found that strained health systems and interruptions in humanitarian response is eroding access to essential and often life-saving nutrition services.
They pointed out that social protection systems in many LMICs are overloaded as vulnerable families struggle to access the food and services they need in the context of an economic downturn.
Also, in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent modeling exercise, using estimates of potential impacts of COVID-19– related economic deterioration, food insecurity, and interruption of community-based malnutrition programmes, suggests that the prevalence of wasting could increase by 10 -50 per cent, with an excess of 40,000–2,000,000 child deaths.
The modeling exercise, according to researchers, shows that concurrently, more children are becoming malnourished because of the deterioration in the quality of their diets, interruptions in nutrition and other essential services, and the socioeconomic shocks created by the pandemic in LMICs.
Their report recommended that without timely action, the global prevalence of child wasting could rise by a shocking 14.3 per cent.
“With an estimated of 47 million children younger than 5 years affected by wasting globally before the COVID-19 pandemic, this would translate to an estimated additional 6.7 million children with wasting during the first 12 months of the pandemic, 80 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and more than 10,000 additional child deaths per month during this same period”, they said.
The researchers posited that with services for the prevention and treatment of wasting to a large extent up-ended in LMICs, 4 million of children are at risk of not receiving the care they need to survive and thrive,” they stated.
Earlier, UNICEF reports on the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic showed a 30 per cent reduction in the coverage of essential nutrition services in LMICs and declines of about 100 per cent under lockdown contexts.
UNICEF, however, estimates that a minimum of US$2.4 billion was needed immediately to protect these children, prevent and treat malnutrition, and avoid human loss.
Experts also fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to increase in other forms of child malnutrition such as stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight.
The lack of action from the global community will have a devastating long-term effect on young children, human productivity and the economy of many nations.
Health watchers are of the view that protecting children’s right to nutrition in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is highly needed.
To them, this requires a swift response and investments from governments, donors, the private sector and the United Nations.
For Victoria and Nigerian children facing the same crisis to live a productive life, experts say access to nutritious, safe, and affordable diets needs to be safeguarded and promoted as a foundation to COVID-19 response.