FAIRFIELD, Conn. Dec. 14, 2020 –  The COVID-19 crisis has put the world on the brink of a nutrition crisis, Save the Children warned in a new report today, with pandemic-related malnutrition projected to kill an average of 153 children a day over the next two years if action is not taken.  

Michelle*, 9, told Save the Children about her one-year-old sister Gloria* who suffers from malnutrition and how they only eat one meal a day. Every day Michelle* takes her sister to the health centre to receive food supplements. Michelle* is happy that her sister’s weight and health has improved because Gloria*s condition has gone from being in the severe acute malnutrition range to the moderate acute malnutrition range. Michelle*, 9, said : “My sister suffers from malnutrition. She has become really skinny because we do not eat well. We only eat once in the morning and in the evening we starve.” “I bring my sister to the health centre to get nutritional rehabilitation. I take her to the centre because my parents go to work in the fields. Since she started her health has really improved. She has gone from red to yellow (on the nutritional measurement scale).” “When a child does not eat, it will get sick and will be malnourished. When a child is malnourished, they can’t go to school or be clever. ” “I carry my sister on my back. No one forced me to take her back to the (health) centre. I just wanted to do it for her to get healthy again. I would like to eat twice a day, in the morning and at night. I am in third year elementary school.” Photo: Christian Mutombo/ Save the Children

In addition, a COVID-19-induced spike in the number of global malnutrition cases could push an additional 9.3 million[i] children to suffer from wasting, a result of acute malnutrition that can lead to death.  

The impact of COVID-19 has led to an increase in poverty, a loss of livelihoods and less access to health and nutrition services, pushing up rates of hunger and malnutrition. In its new report, Nutrition Critical, Save the Children said that the pandemic could reverse years of progress made in the battle against malnutrition, with children in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa being hardest hit—especially those in poorer households or in crises and conflict zones.  

Even before the pandemic hit, many communities struggled to provide children with enough healthy food, with one in three children under five suffering from malnutrition.[ii] Almost half of all of deaths among children under the age of five were linked to under-nutrition. 

“Before COVID-19, the school fed us meals each school day, but now the program has stopped. I hope it will start again soon,” said Nassir,* a 12-year-old student in the Somali region of Ethiopia. 

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate an already dire situation. The report includes new data from the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium (STfN),[iii] which predicts that, unless we act now, an additional 168,000 children will die of malnutrition by the end of 2022. 

Michelle,* a 9-year-old girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told Save the Children about her one-year-old sister Gloria,* who suffers from malnutrition. Every day, Michelle* carries her sister on her back to the health center to receive food supplements. 

“My sister has become really skinny because we do not eat well. We only eat once in the morning and in the evening, we go hungry,” she said. “I carry my sister on my back [to the clinic]. I just want her to get healthy again. I would like to eat twice a day, in the morning and at night.” 

Without action, millions more children will be at risk of suffering irreversible health damage due to a lack of nutritious foods, Save the Children warned. Vulnerable communities across the globe are already facing an extreme food emergency, as 11 million children under five are facing extreme hunger or starvation, including in five ‘hunger hotspots’ caused by conflict and the effects of climate change.  

In Yemen alone, recent UN data shows that some 16.2 million people will be facing high levels of acute food shortages in early 2021 as an effect of conflict and the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 7.35 million children, with an estimated 21,338 children at risk of falling into famine.  

Gabriella Waaijman, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children, said:

“The COVID-19 crisis has led to a wave of new malnutrition cases among vulnerable communities, and we must stop this threat in its tracks. To truly put an end to malnutrition and hunger, we must tackle the root causes of acute nutritious food shortages. That means putting an end to global conflict, tackling changing climate, building more resilient communities, and ensuring aid workers have unhindered access to the most vulnerable communities. Investing now can prevent these deaths. The pandemic has forced us all to rethink the society we live in, giving us a chance to build back better and support children in fulfilling their potential.” 

To avert a nutrition crisis in the coming years, Save the Children urges governments and other organizations to take immediate action. This means:  

  • Including children in the decisions that impact them, including health and nutrition;  
  • Ensuring financing, by making long-term and flexible commitments to address malnutrition; 
  • Preserving and scaling up critical food, nutrition, health, water, sanitation, hygiene, and livelihood assistance; 
  • Prioritizing humanitarian cash and voucher support for families in order to increase their household income; 
  • Urgently addressing malnutrition in fragile or conflict-affected regions;  
  • Strengthening essential health and nutrition services.  

Together with the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, Save the Children emphasized that 2021 is a pivotal year for nutrition. The launch of its report coincided with a kick-off event this week for Nutrition for Growth 2021, convened by the governments of Canada and Bangladesh, in partnership with the government of Japan. The event celebrated new policy and financing commitments to nutrition from a range of stakeholders and formally launched a Nutrition for Growth Year of Action that includes milestone events leading up to the Summit in Tokyo in late December 2021.  

*Names changed to protect identities

[i] Data from Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium. 

[ii] https://www.unicef.org/reports/state-of-worlds-children-2019 

[iii] Standing Together for Nutrition (STfN) is a multidisciplinary consortium of nutrition, economics, food and health system experts working to address the scale and reach of COVID-related nutrition challenges. https://micronutrientforum.org/standing-together-for-nutrition/ 

The report, Nutrition Critical, can be found here: https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/health/nutrition-critical-report-stc.pdf.

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