Children may not suffer from the most serious health consequences of COVID-19 at the same rate as adults, but they will face the most long-term consequences.
Children lose families and face loss of family livelihood, decreased access to food and education, increased abuse, and an unsafe environment. According to Save the Children, “millions of children risk poverty and hunger as India’s COVID crisis spirals.”
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of health systems and other national and global health mechanisms to respond effectively to crises. The failure to act effectively and promptly has resulted in reduced access to healthcare and nutrition support programs for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.
In India, malnutrition is on the rise. Results from the 5th round of the National Health and Family Survey, which were reported at the end of 2020, show increased rates of stunting (height for age), wasting (weight for age), and anemia across India — key indicators of health for the first 1,000 days of life. The survey results do not account for the impact of the second surge of COVID-19, which was far worse than the first wave. Although malnutrition was on the rise even before the pandemic hit the shores of India, its steep rise as a result of the botched pandemic response, denial of the magnitude of impact, lack of data collection and transparency, haphazard effort to seek and receive global help, and faulty mitigation strategies have put the health and wellbeing of children on the brink.
Across the world, the situation is dire. One hundred million people have fallen back into poverty because of the pandemic, and 130 million may have been tipped into chronic hunger. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 and its subsequent impacts have led to severe increases in global food insecurity, reversing years of development gains. Contributing to reduced incomes and disrupting supply chains, COVID-19 has made an already alarming level of acute hunger even higher.
Addressing food security and ensuring social protection go together, so nutrition-specific interventions must be funded alongside the other major health and economic programs.
Finding a solution
In light of national neglect, the global community must come together to respond immediately to reach every child and mother in India and globally to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. We need global solidarity in every sense of the term that is inclusive of all stakeholders, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or age.
The unfortunate reality, as is the case with most of our global challenges, is that the onus will largely fall on our world’s youth to pick up the pieces left behind by governments that failed to enact swift, encompassing measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19; thus, failing to mitigate the secondary impacts of the pandemic as well. As emerging leaders and active members of society, youth will be responsible for ensuring that policies and mitigation measures are upheld moving forward. Thus, youth must be taken seriously as a stakeholder as we work to curb the pandemic, increase resources to fight food insecurity, and develop pandemic preparedness plans.
This fall, as the Group of Twenty (G20) meets in Rome for its annual summit, world leaders will focus their attention on promoting food security as part of ensuring a fair and equitable recovery from the pandemic. Additionally, the ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership is engaging with the G20 process, calling on members to take action on nutrition in three specific areas: resource mobilization, implementation, and accountability.
First, the Matera Declaration must include nutrition as an essential component in pandemic preparedness and COVID-19 recovery specifically. Second, the G20 communiqué must adopt evidence-based solutions aligning and integrating multi-sectoral nutrition plans, national immunization strategies, and UHC roadmaps and prioritize nutrition and immunization in national development plans. Third and finally, G20 members should implement the OECD’s nutrition policy marker to better track progress on all global nutrition targets, including funding to programs that directly target reducing malnutrition.
Malnutrition is a hidden epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is more important than ever to show the political will to support nutrition and food security. The voice of civil society — North and South — must also be represented in these processes at the global and domestic levels. In the U.S., for example, grassroots advocacy organizations are calling on Congress to appropriate $300 million to nutrition, which would be a doubling of the previous year’s contribution to global nutrition.
Where are the youth?
Global leaders cannot remain passive spectators to the blighting of our collective future. While recognizing that children represent the constituency that will face the biggest share of the burden of dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, they will also be the world’s greatest solution. Our children may be more vulnerable and susceptible to hunger and malnutrition, but they are also a massive force whose innovative and collective power must not be underestimated. When it comes to laying the groundwork for building economies, our health systems, etc. after the pandemic, youth must have a seat at the table.
Youth the world over have a long history of driving change. From the civil rights movement and anti-apartheid campaigns to the Arab Spring and today’s ongoing climate change advocacy, young people have demonstrated time and time again that they are resilient, innovative, adaptable, and incredibly resourceful.
As we observe International Youth Day this twelfth of August, we’re presented with a nexus at which youth can be a critical voice for change. With the special theme of “Transforming Food Systems,” the UN and other bodies can use this time to elevate the voices of youth. In addition to policy recommendations to support this global fight against pandemic-related malnutrition, youth should also be welcomed to global processes, fora, and multilateral meetings. Through furthered education, engagement, and innovation, youth may just have the answers to curbing malnutrition rates and mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s food systems.
The world’s youth are not a constituency to be ignored, but rather a critical force of change that should be leveraged to create innovative solutions for global food insecurity. Global leaders and multilateral institutions have a critical role to play here to increase funding and expand key partnerships in a way that is empowering for and inclusive of youth the world over.
We all, in our own way, small or big, have a role to play through educating ourselves, connecting with our local civil society groups, engaging with legislative representatives, and spreading the word on social media with the hashtag #InvestInNutrition and #NutritionYearOfAction. And, on this International Youth Day, we, including leaders at all levels, should be asking ourselves, how can I involve the youth? and what can we learn from them?
This article was originally published by International Policy Digest.