Scaling up nutrition in a time of COVID-19: Time to accelerate action

While the world had been making slow but steady progress in reducing malnutrition over the past decade, recent trends and events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have put this progress at risk.

While the world had been making slow but steady progress in reducing malnutrition over the past decade, recent trends and events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have put this progress at risk.

As a result of climate change, conflict, environmental degradation and stressors – such as the 2019–20 locust infestation – hunger is on the rise and we are not making enough progress on malnutrition targets. Hunger affects 60 million more people than five years ago.

Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse —270 million people are marching toward starvation.

David Beasley, WFP Executive Director and SUN Lead Group member at the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony

The devastating COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis on top of a crisis in many countries, with negative impacts on nutrition. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate an already alarming situation. Acute hunger doubled by the end of 2020 – from 130 million to over 270 million – due to the impact of COVID-19 and drought.

The pandemic has created multiple shocks, which impacts people’s nutrition, especially the most vulnerable, by disrupting livelihoods and food systems, interrupting access to essential health and nutrition services and overburdening already stretched health and social protection systems.

These disruptions have been caused by parents avoiding health centres out of fear of infection, transport restrictions, financial difficulties, closure of facilities, and fewer health workers available due to diversions, shortages of personal protective equipment, among other things.

COVID-19 has adversely impacted diets, eating habits and lifestyles of adults but also children. Without the school platform, and without the access to school health and nutrition programmes, hunger and malnutrition, poverty and early pregnancy are exacerbated.

Fast facts

  • As of 21 January 2021, SUN country COVID-19 infections – covering the Movement’s 62 member States – stand at 5,640,590 – which is 5.81 per cent of the total infections seen globally.
  • A UNICEF survey conducted in 77 countries during the summer of 2020 found that 63 per cent of countries reported disruptions in antenatal check-ups and 50 per cent in post-natal care.
  • A WHO survey showed that more than half of 105 countries reported disruptions in health services for sick children and in management of malnutrition.
  • Since April 2020, about 370 million children have missed out on meals and essential health and nutrition services, with a potential impact of up to 24 million dropouts and USD 10 trillion in lost future earnings.
  • UNICEF reports a 30 per cent reduction in the coverage of essential nutrition services in low- and middle-income countries and declines of 75 to 100 per cent under lockdown, in the early months of the pandemic.
  • COVID-19 impacts over the next 3 years will inhibit meeting SDG2 and WHA global nutrition targets. This could lead to: 9.3 million more wasted children, 2.6 million more stunted children, an additional 168,000 under-five child deaths, an additional 2.1 million cases of maternal anaemia and a decrease of USD 29.7 billion in economic productivity.
  • Already in 2019, an estimated 3 billion people could not afford healthy diets.

This data is only the tip of the iceberg. The COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to increase other forms of child malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight. This is unacceptable, as even short-term disruptions in access to nutritious food and key nutrition services can have irreversible effects on the health and development of children and their families.

COVID-19: The SUN Movement rallies

With people’s ability to access safe, nutritious and diverse diets at risk, and health and resilience under threat, urgent multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral action is needed. Since the start of the pandemic, SUN Movement stakeholders have worked together, and as one, to mitigate the impact on nutrition during the crisis, and put in place the foundations for building back better after the pandemic.

Key priorities have been to ensure this multi-sectoral approach nutrition is prioritised and fully integrated across COVID-19 response and recovery plans, at all levels, and to build on and leverage existing nutrition capacity, data and coordination forums while responding to the crisis.

In 19 SUN countries, the SUN Focal Point is a part of the COVID-19 emergency response efforts: Bangladesh, Cambodia, El Salvador, The Gambia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Liberia, Nepal, Mauritania, Mozambique, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Viet Nam and Zambia

The pandemic has disrupted established ways of collaborating, in SUN countries, but also globally. Countries have been supported to keep their multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs) active, maintain close working relations across different stakeholders, and ensure SUN Movement Government Focal Points and MSPs contribute to the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

The SUN Movement Secretariat, alongside the SUN Networks, have scaled up collaboration in support of member States, through joint advocacy and communication, facilitating technical assistance and provide guidance to countries how to access nutrition funding during the crisis. This has included conducting rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on nutrition and on SUN Movement ways of working, facilitating webinars for knowledge-sharing and peer-to-peer learning.

A SUN Movement COVID-19 advocacy and communication strategy was developed to guide messaging and coordinated action, and a range of resources were developed to support SUN countries in responding to the crisis. These include,among others, key advocacy messages, an information note for SUN country stakeholders, factsheets and a SUN COVID-19 knowledge hub, which is regularly updated with the latest guidance, good practices and country stories.

5 SUN country trends in a time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought new challenges but also new opportunities, to look at the way we work together to fight malnutrition. Webinars with SUN country stakeholders held in August 2020 identified the following trends:

  • The pandemic has laid bare the fact that confusion between nutrition and food security exists, including thinking that enough calories is enough to be well-nourished;
  • It has been harder than ever to access real-time reliable data to prioritise adequate actions and allocate resources for nutrition interventions;
  • There is new political momentum and unprecedent opportunity for investing in and strengthening local food systems due to the disruption of global food systems which has had negative effects in SUN countries with a reliance on imported food;
  • Citizens across SUN countries expect improved health, nutrition and education services;
  • This crisis has led to the development or scaling up of good practice, including innovations and adaptations that will help countries respond during the pandemic, and build back better. For example:
  • In Central America, the Central American Integration System (SICA) has launched a Regional Contingency Plan where food security and nutrition is well positioned, as SICA will coordinate actions within this framework to avoid food crises, and will monitor indicators, especially related to adequate access, availability of food and stability.
  • In Cameroon, FAO is training producers to use innovative solar dryers to process and conserve fruit and vegetables while preserving their nutritional status. In Cameroon, Congo and Gabon, ‘Green Classes’ have been introduced in schools to ensure nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems, with FAO support.
  • Burkina Faso is harnessing digital and transformative opportunities for both integrated management of childhood illnesses and malnutrition – leading to a significant rise in correct undernutrition classifications.
  • In Comoros, an information system on severe acute malnutrition (SAM) management has been built during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • In Bangladesh, the National Nutrition Services (NNS) is conducting online surveys to assess the functionality of 366 severe acute malnutrition centres.

Continued efforts are needed to respond to the imminent hunger and malnutrition crisis, evolving in the pandemic’s shadow, and to ensure nutrition is prioritised in COVID-19 recovery plans at all levels. It is crucial to scale up food assistance and treatment of acute malnutrition of children, and to invest in comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach to prevent and treat malnutrition.

Accelerated action is needed across food systems, health systems and social protection systems to protect people’s nutrition – making healthy diets are available and affordable to all, especially the poorest, and ensure everyone can access the health and nutrition services they need.

Without this, our vision of a world free from all forms of malnutrition by 2030 will be hard to reach.