The World Health Organization has raised the alarm over potential
effects of COVID-19 on food security and worsening malnutrition in
Effects of the pandemic will be greater among people struggling with food scarcity and malnutrition, while food insecurity will rise
because of lockdowns among nations, the organization said.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti said COVID-19 is unfolding in Africa against a backdrop of worrying levels of hunger and undernourishment, which could worsen as the virus threatens livelihoods and household economies.
She noted that hunger and malnutrition heighten vulnerability to
diseases, the consequences of which could be far reaching if not
In Africa, it is estimated that one in five people is undernourished,
and that 30% of children under five – approximately 59 million
children – have stunted growth, greater than the global average of
21.9%. Wasting occurs in approximately 7.1% of children in Africa. The continent has the highest burden of malnutrition compared with other parts of the world, in terms of percentage of the population. While there has been little research so far into malnutrition as a co-morbidity for COVID-19, people with weakened immune systems as a result of undernourishment are at greater risk of a range of serious illnesses and so are likely to be more severely affected by the virus.
Recent estimates of food insecurity have suggested that as many as 73 million people in Africa were acutely food insecure. COVID-19 is exacerbating food shortages, as food imports, transportation and agricultural production have all been hampered by a combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and physical distancing measures.
The burden of movement restrictions and lockdowns is being felt
particularly strongly by low-income households and those working in the informal economy due to their loss of livelihoods and inability to access markets. Some countries have already announced measures to mitigate some of the risks of lockdowns on food supply, from in-kind distributions to this week’s announcement by Heads of State of the East African Community of their intention to develop a mechanism for tracking and certification of cross-border truck drivers to ensure the
safe delivery of essential goods.
But malnutrition is also a concern for households that had the means to stock up on food before lockdowns. Greater consumption of processed and canned foods combined with reduced physical exercise could worsen obesity and diabetes, risk factors that have been documented as increasing the severity of COVID-19. The most recent global nutrition report estimated that 17% of women and 7% of men in Africa are obese.
“COVID-19 does not treat us equally, and whether or not we have a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is a key factor in how our bodies respond to the virus,” said Dr Moeti. “If we are not getting enough food, or not eating enough of the right sorts of food, our bodies will find it harder to fight off COVID-19 infection.”
WHO has developed guidance on how to maintain a healthy diet during confinement, emphasizing the importance of wholegrains and cereals, lentils, peas and beans. WHO is also issuing guidance on measures that countries should have in place as lockdowns end.
“As countries begin to relax their lockdowns, essential health
services must be in place to meet the challenges posed by
malnutrition,” Dr Moeti said. “It is important to remember that
easing a lockdown should be thought of not as an event, but as a
dynamic, data-driven process. If the epidemiological evidence suggests
that restrictions need to remain in place, governments should ensure that measures are taken to alleviate hunger that might arise as a result of these restrictions.”
WHO is recommending that Member States provide assistance to food insecure households, ensure that medical supplies and treatment capacities is reserved for handling patients with acute malnutrition, and that screening and referral mechanisms for acute malnutrition are in place.