The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned, on Monday, almost 54 million children worldwide will suffer from malnourishment and wasting during 2020 due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
UNICEF has defined wasting as a life-threatening form of malnutrition, causing weakness and thinness in children, putting them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning.
The humanitarian agency said that this would bring global wasting numbers to levels not seen this millennium, particularly if urgent action is not taken.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, according to UNICEF, about 47 million children were already wasted in 2019. An additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from dangerous wasting in 2020, due to the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are set to account for about 80% of those children facing food insecurity, over half of whom would be from South Asia alone, UNICEF added.
“It’s been seven months since the first COVID-19 cases were reported and it is increasingly clear that the repercussions of the pandemic are causing more harm to children than the disease itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased, and essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted.”
Additionally, food prices have soared, and as a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down causing a risk of a commensurate rise in malnutrition rates. The estimated increase in child wasting is only the tip of the iceberg, UN agencies warn.
UNICEF has emphasised that this year could witness an increase of about 14.5% in wasting among children under the age of five due to the consequences of COVID-19. This will, in turn, cause about 10,000 additional child deaths per month, with over 50% of these deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
The effects of COVID-19 are also likely to increase forms of malnutrition in women and children, including stunting of growth or the reverse, as a result of poorer diets and the disruption of nutrition services.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, UNICEF has reported about a reduction of about 30% in essential and nutrition services. However, this percentage has increased to between 75% and 100% under lock-down measures. Over 250 million children globally are missing the full benefits of Vitamin A supplementation due to the global pandemic.
In a statement on Monday, the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the pandemic is undermining nutrition worldwide. This is particularly in low- and middle-income countries, with the worst consequences being borne by young children.
The international organisations asserted that more women and children are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets, the interruption of nutrition services, and the shocks created by the pandemic.
In order to protect maternal and child nutrition in the most vulnerable countries from now until the end of the year, the humanitarian agencies immediately need about $2.4bn, the statement added.