Martin Short, Chief Executive Officer, The Power of Nutrition
When we reflect on the events and repercussions of the first quarter of 2020, we may well arrive at the conclusion that for the majority of us, this pandemic has changed the way in which we behave more than any other event in living memory. Regardless of who we are and where we live, the health of the few has ultimately become the health of us all. COVID-19 has starkly exposed the fragility of our global health systems whether they were seemingly well financed or already creaking at the seams.
Funding the improvement and robustness of health systems through systemic and societal change is at the heart of The Power of Nutrition and our partners’ work. We ground health system strengthening into the design of all our programmes. Working with and through national health systems in Sub Saharan Africa and Greater Asia to reach as many women and children as possible and to increase access and availability of essential supplements and behaviour change communication interventions within those health systems. And, we believe, our mission is now more critical than ever.
In the week that The International Monetary Fund declared a recession that could be worse than 2009, we see that the impact of COVID-19 travels beyond Health Systems and plays havoc on food systems and economies.
The far-reaching socio-economic impact of COVID-19 is limiting access to nutrition interventions, a diversified food basket and sufficient medical care – the foundation to good health and security. Particularly in developing countries in Africa and Asia, we know that undernourished people will experience reduced immunity and face increased susceptibility to infections. In parallel, those who don’t contract the virus are anticipated to face food shortages due to financial constraints, or obstructions to logistics and supply chains as a result of social distancing.
Fragile health systems are not well prepared to handle an impending tidal wave of demand. The world’s future generation – children – will be the victims of the pandemic. Data that will emerge on how our response to COVID -19 has impacted Vitamin A disbursement, IFA uptake and childhood mortality will not make for pleasant reading.
Pneumonia is the number one infectious cause of death of children under five globally. And undernutrition is associated with half of all deaths in such children. In addition to it being a key determinant of the risk of acquiring the infection, nutritional status is a principal determinant of health trajectory and outcomes.
So ironically, our responses to preventing COVID-19 related deaths, has unintended consequences of reversing the global nutrition goals the nutrition community is fighting so hard to advance. Evidence tells us that good nutrition boosts immunity and the ability to fight off infections responds effectively to treatments and help stem the impact of epidemics. An undernourished child is nine times more likely to die from complications arising from infections than a well-nourished child. Expectant mothers who have an infection are far more likely to give birth to a stunted child. This is not alarmist. This is well accepted within development.
During this time of upheaval and uncertainty, we need to signal that nutrition must be integrated into a global COVID-19 response and future strategies. Further investment in nutrition and health systems is now more important than ever.
A siloed approach to funding the response efforts is not, and will not be, effective in tackling the wider impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable systems and defenceless people. Collective action through a strategic, long-term lens is the only solution to tackle the vast economic and social cost of this pandemic. And importantly, this needs the collective approach that embraces all the stakeholders and all interventions that impact human capital.