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Closure of schools, disrupted supply chains, soaring food prices… The spread of Covid-19 has weakened the food balance of millions of children around the world.
An indirect consequence of the new coronavirus, childhood malnutrition is worsening around the world. Based on a study by the scientific journal The Lancet, Unicef draws up on Tuesday July 28 a dramatic observation: 6.7 million additional children in the world could suffer from extreme thinness this year because of the economic and social crisis caused by the pandemic.
The extent of the scourge was already considerable before the arrival of the virus, 47 million children suffering from the consequences of malnutrition in 2019, underlines the United Nations Children’s Fund.
According to the study of the journal The Lancet, the worsening phenomena of malnutrition could result in more than 10,000 additional deaths of children each month, half of which in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It has been seven months since the first cases of Covid-19 were reported and it is increasingly clear that the consequences of the pandemic are harming children more than the disease itself”, commented the executive director of Unicef, Henrietta Fore. How to explain that a virus can weaken the nutritional balance of the youngest? “Several reasons explain it”, assures Hélène Botreau, advocacy manager at Oxfam France on the issues of agriculture and world food security, contacted by France 24.
“First of all, with the closure of schools during lockdown, an estimated 350 million students worldwide have been deprived of school meals. Yet for many children, it was the only balanced meal in the day “, notes the representative of the organization. He added: “The families therefore had to bear this additional cost on their own, something which was sometimes very complicated, if not impossible.”
>> To see, our Debate: “After the coronavirus: towards a global food crisis?”
Meals have also had to adapt in the face of disrupted food supply chains. “All over the world, the closure of local markets has weakened homes. There has also been a lack of labor in the fields and a slowdown in transport during containment. There have been major disruptions in the fields. ports and highways. All of this had concrete repercussions. Many breeders were unable to bring their cattle to the slaughterhouse and sell their products, “said Hélène Botreau.
As certain foods become rarer, their prices have mechanically increased. “This was especially verified on perishable foodstuffs, that is to say fruits, vegetables and products derived from animals”, notes the specialist. The price of vegetables thus climbed by 142% and that of fish by 114% between March and May 2020 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to the World Bank.
But the scarcity of local products alone does not explain the rise in prices. Added to this is the disruption of trade, especially during confinement. “In Mauritania, the price of onions and potatoes, two raw materials usually imported, has soared”, adds the expert. Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa heavily dependent on imports, such as Somalia and South Sudan, have seen their cereal supplies disrupted.
Finally, countries in the grip of war, such as Yemen and Syria, were also among the most threatened by food shortages. “To sum up, the pandemic has superimposed itself on other pre-existing crises in the world – conflicts in the Middle East, food dependency of some countries on others, drought and salinization of rice fields in Vietnam – and has sometimes made some of them worse. effects.”
The result: unsurprisingly, malnutrition has accelerated in the poorest regions of the world. Thus, undernourishment among children under 5 could increase this year by 14.3% in low- and middle-income countries, estimates the study published in The Lancet.
But this estimate, however dramatic, would only be the “tip of the iceberg”. The researchers of the journal The Lancet advance that “the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nutrition of the youngest (…) could have intergenerational consequences”. In other words, the growth and development of children born after the health crisis could be disrupted. A finding that is not surprising for Hélène Botreau.
The double burden of malnutrition
“Malnutrition is transmitted from mother to child. If the latter has been malnourished, the infant will also suffer from malnutrition. Everything is played out in the first thousand days of the newborn since its conception”, insists the head of advocacy of Oxfam France. Another worrying factor, “children who were malnourished in the first few days experience a ‘double burden’: they can also be affected by a risk of obesity. Because after experiencing malnutrition, their body has assimilated storage mechanisms lipids more strongly than another organism. “
Not wanting to let children become the “neglected victims of the pandemic”, the United Nations is calling for 2.4 billion dollars “immediately” to protect their nutrition in the most vulnerable countries until the end of the crisis. year. But even more than money, Unicef calls on States to relax certain travel restrictions in order to facilitate care for the most vulnerable.
“By closing schools, disrupting basic health services and food aid, we can also worsen the situation,” said Victor Aguayo, head of the nutrition program at the UN agency.