The socio-economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic could have catastrophic consequences that go well beyond the devastation directly caused by the virus, UNICEF warned Monday.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian relief for children worldwide, said in statement that “an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from wasting — and therefore become dangerously undernourished — in 2020 as a result of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The agency calls “wasting” a life-threatening form of malnutrition, which puts children at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning.
UNICEF was referring to an analysis published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, which looked at the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on childhood malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to UNICEF, 47 million children worldwide already suffered from wasting. If no action is taken, that number could rise to nearly 54 million over the course of the year.
In the study, also published Monday, researchers suggested that the impacts triggered by the pandemic the number of children suffering from wasting could increase by 14.3% low- and middle-income countries this year.
“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,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a statement.
“Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up.”
The increase in children malnutrition would translate into over 10,000 additional child deaths per month, according to the study. More than 50% of those will occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
In a commentary to The Lancet analysis, heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization warned that the increase in child wasting is “only the tip of the iceberg.”
The crisis could potentially create a spike in other forms of malnutrition — in children and women — including stunting (a condition that prevents children to grow and develop properly), micro-nutrient deficiencies, as well as obesity, “as a result of poorer diets and the disruption of nutrition services.”
The humanitarian agencies called for immediate action to protect children’s right to proper nutrition amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Our agencies estimate that a minimum of US$2.4 billion is needed immediately to protect these children, prevent and treat malnutrition, and avoid human loss,” according to the statement.
“We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the head of UNICEF.
“We must simultaneously think both short and long term, so that we not only address the challenges posed by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also chart a brighter future for children and young people.”