Hunger will cause an estimated 10,000 additional children to die each month during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study published by the medical journal The Lancet.
The pandemic is increasing the number of children suffering from wasting—defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as low weight-for-height, and caused by a lack of access to nutritious food and/or prolonged illness.
Young children are especially vulnerable to wasting, since malnutrition at an early age heightens the risk of death and hinders physical and cognitive development. Undernutrition is associated with 45 percent of deaths in children under the age of five, according to the WHO.
In 2019, 47 million children suffered from wasting, but an estimated 6.7 million additional children will be affected by wasting within the first year of the pandemic.
What’s Causing this Child Hunger Crisis?
Across the world, the pandemic is placing strains on social support services and economic systems, resulting in an increase in poverty and hunger.
Reductions in working hours and job loss are increasing the number of households experiencing financial insecurity, making it more difficult to buy food (especially nutritious foods which are often more expensive and harder to obtain).
Moreover, food supply chains are experiencing interruptions due to changes in demand, labor shortages, and limits placed on transportation.
At the same time, many health care facilities are overburdened by the influx of COVID-19 patients. This means resources for primary care services—including the treatment of maternal and child malnutrition—are being diverted to address the pandemic.
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Vaccine programs are also being disrupted during this crisis, leaving a potential 80 million children unvaccinated against measles, polio and diphtheria. Malnutrition leaves the body more susceptible to infection because it does not have the resources required to mount an effective immune response.
Interruptions to education exacerbate child wasting as well. When schools shut down to contain coronavirus outbreaks, as many as 370 million children lose access to a critical source of nutritious meals. And health and nutrition education for mothers and children plays a “crucial” role in childhood development.
Immediate Intervention is Crucial
Ending child wasting should be an urgent priority for lawmakers. Without immediate action, this crisis will result in long-term adverse effects on future generations.
Children with stunted growth are more likely to have lower educational attainment, reduced income in adulthood, and—for those who have children—decreased birth weight in offspring. Beyond the individual level, child wasting inhibits a country’s economic growth. Reducing child wasting now is a vital step towards recovering the global economy after this pandemic.
Dr. Francesco Branca, the head of nutrition at the WHO, warns, “The food security effects of the COVID crisis are going to reflect many years from now. There is going to be a societal effect.”
Without intervention, the pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for generations to come.
Lockdowns and restrictions caused by coronavirus-related lockdowns are limiting the ability of hunger relief organizations to help those in need.
Additionally, funding for humanitarian organizations is decreasing as more resources are being put towards fighting the immediate threat the coronavirus presents.
Four international organizations—the WHO, the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization—are asking for $2.4 billion to relieve hunger, as well as calling for travel restrictions to be eased so food and health care can be delivered to those who need it.
As Victor Aguayo, the head of UNICEF’s nutrition program, explains, “By having schools closed, by having primary health care services disrupted, by having nutritional programs dysfunctional, we are also creating harm.”
If you’re able, consider donating money to hunger relief organizations such as UNICEF.