Millions of children at risk of undernutrition as a result of corona crisis

Published on
August 5, 2020

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people are struggling to access adequate food and healthcare. Millions of children in developing countries are at risk of undernutrition as a result. These alarming findings have come from a large collective of international scientists, including Saskia Osendarp from Wageningen’s Human Nutrition and Health research group. The researchers are calling on the international community for immediate action.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, a large consortium was established for the purpose of conducting research into the consequences of the pandemic on food provision. This consortium – Standing Together for Nutrition (STfN) – is made up of experts in nutrition, health and economics. Nutrition scientist Saskia Osendarp is the Executive Director of the Micronutrient Forum, and was a co-founder of STfN in that capacity. STfN’s first research results appeared on 27 July in The Lancet Global Health Journal, along with a call to action from the heads of UNICEF, WHO, WFP and FAO.

Children in South Asia and Africa

The results indicate that millions of people, particularly children in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are at risk of serious food-related problems caused by the corona crisis. If no action is taken, there will be almost 130,000 additional deaths of children under 5 due to undernutrition in 2020. A further 6.7 million children will become seriously underweight because of the corona crisis. This is an increase of 14% compared to the current number of children suffering from undernutrition. According to UNICEF, these numbers are unprecedented in this millennium.

With the crisis set to continue, other consequences of undernutrition will inevitably increase. These include stunting, overweight and micronutrient deficiencies. The problems also affect breastfeeding mothers.

These developments can be attributed directly and indirectly to the corona pandemic. Food systems have been disrupted all over the world, with the production, transportation and sale of food becoming significantly more difficult. This has prevented many people from being able to access sufficient, healthy food. In many cases, household incomes have decreased as well. Healthcare has also come under heavy pressure, which means it’s often impossible to prevent and treat problems related to being underweight.

One virus, many consequences

STfN’s researchers are making an urgent appeal to the international community. Their call to action is “One virus, many consequences”. It urges the United Nations and its member states to act now, and also calls on scientists to coalesce around the challenge. An initial 2.4 billion dollars is needed for emergency action to treat and support undernourished children and breastfeeding mothers.

The stakes are high, according to Saskia Osendarp. “Lots of progress has been made in recent years to combat undernutrition in young children and mothers,” she says. “If we don’t act now, we risk losing that progress by the end of this year as an indirect result of COVID-19. The consequences of this could last for generations.”