With nearly 400,000 declared deaths, the second wave of Covid-19 in India has been devastating. Overflowing hospitals, corps floating down rivers, parks and parking lots converted into sites for cremations; over the last months, the attention has been focused on the pandemic’s direct consequences on the Indian population.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, another crisis has been playing out behind the scenes: a catastrophic lack of access to nutritious food.
Malnutrition has been tormenting India for years. In fact, India is home to the largest undernourished population in the world, with about 189.2 million people, or 14 % of the population, suffering from malnutrition, the majority of whom are women and children. Encouraging gains in reducing childhood malnutrition, especially stunting among children, were recorded in the fourth round of the National Health and Family Survey of 2016, a national survey deployed to collect reliable and up-to-date information on fertility, family planning, mortality, and maternal and child health. However, the fifth and latest round of the survey, done over 2020 and 2021, shows that sub-national jurisdictions have recorded increases in childhood stunting rates. This can be explained by the series of systemic shocks happening in India over the period of 2016 through 2021, from the abrupt demonetization program of 2016 (which reduced household incomes and purchasing capacities), to the subsequent economic slowdown, accentuated by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the fifth survey coincided with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, it does not take into account the impact of the second wave of the epidemic happening during the second quarter of 2021. It does, however, show the distress at household food security levels resulting from the extended nationwide lockdown in the early part of 2020, and the subsequent loss of jobs and migrant worker displacement from urban areas to rural homesteads.
The measures taken during the crisis to slow down the spread of Covid-19 resulted in fewer visits to antenatal and nutrition support program centers run by the public health system for pregnant and lactating women, and for children under the age of 5. School meal programs were also drastically curtailed during 2020, and continue to be, increasing the pressure on households to feed everyone at home. With the second wave intensifying across the bulk of the high stunting prevalence districts in the north and central Indian states, there is an increased expenditure on poor healthcare services and funerals, depleting household food security. Ante and neonatal visits to health care posts are also well below comparative periods 2 years ago. The India birth cohort is about 25 million live births, which means that a minimum of 75 million children are at immediate risk for nutritional deprivation, during a time of severe stress on the country’s health and social security system. It also puts the global SDG trajectories of reducing under 5 mortality and malnutrition under severe strain.
Covid-19 outbreak is expected to double food insecurity in 2020, if an immediate response is not developed. Global Health Advocates is extremely worried about the situation in India. Immediate, at-scale assistance to reach every child and mother at nutritional jeopardy in India must be supported and operationalized. The global community cannot remain a silent spectator to the blighting of its collective future.
Before Covid-19 hit, chronic malnutrition affected 149 million children worldwide, while 45 million children suffered from acute forms of malnutrition. Now, data collected by Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium (STFN) predicts that an additional 168,000 will die of malnutrition by the end of 2022. 2021 is a Nutrition Year of Action – culminating in the Nutrition for Growth Summit (N4G) in December, we need more than ever leadership from the EU and the international community on elevating nutrition, scale-up investment into maternal and child nutrition as well as more commitments to prevent all forms of malnutrition.