The statistics and analyses presented on the UNICEF data website pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic. Even without the added impact of the pandemic, they already make clear that the world is not on track to meet Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition.

Today, more vulnerable children are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets and the multiple shocks created by the pandemic and its containment measures. Efforts to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 are disrupting food systems, upending health and nutrition services, devastating livelihoods, and threatening food security. Recent estimates indicate that in addition to the 690 million undernourished people in 2019, at least another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020.1 As of July 2020, an estimated 370 million children are missing school meals. 2 With these added shocks, children’s dietary quantity and quality are expected to deteriorate below the already poor situation that existed pre-COVID-19, when only 29 per cent of children aged 6 to 23 months were fed a minimally diverse diet and only 53 per cent received the minimum meal frequency.

In July 2020, UNICEF, with the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization issued a call to action in The Lancet,3 warning of the pandemic’s potential to worsen the pre-existing crisis of malnutrition and tip an additional 6.7 million children over the edge to become wasted during its first year. 2 This is in addition to the 47 million children affected by wasting and 144 million affected by stunting in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the 2020 Joint Malnutrition Estimates.

Malnourished children have weakened immune systems and may face a greater risk of dying from COVID-19. At the same time, it may be more difficult for these children to access the treatment and care they need to survive and thrive. UNICEF country offices reported a 30 per cent decline in overall coverage of services to improve nutrition outcomes for women and children in the early months of the pandemic, and alarming reductions of 75 to 100 per cent under lockdown contexts. 3

Coverage of other essential nutrition services for children and women may also be affected as a result of COVID-19 transmission mitigation efforts. For example, it was recommended to suspend mass campaigns for vitamin A supplementation in the first months of the pandemic, which may affect coverage in 2020. However, as part of The Lancet five-point call to action in July, UNICEF and partners recommend that services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting be re-activated, and that preventive services, such as vitamin A supplementation, micronutrient supplementation for pregnant and breastfeeding women be maintained and scaled-up, while minimizing risks.

What UNICEF is doing

UNICEF maintains global databases on nutrition indicators mainly related to children. These indicators track stunting, wasting and overweight, infant and young child feeding practices (e.g., exclusive breastfeeding, minimum diet diversity, etc.), low birthweight, micronutrients (e.g., vitamin A supplementation), and food fortification (household iodized salt).

Many of these databases contain disaggregated estimates for different groups (e.g. wealth quintiles, sub-national geographic areas, etc.), which can highlight inequities. These data can help identify where vulnerable children live, so that interventions – including those aiming to counteract the potential adverse effects of COVID-19 – favour the children most in need. As updates to the data become available, we will continue to release them here.  Work is also underway to build databases on school-age and adolescent nutrition and maternal nutrition, both key areas to track if we are to make progress in nutrition at the population-level and for future generations.

Evidence generation is a critical component of the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, pandemic mitigation measures may impede routine data collection and the ability to conduct household surveys. UNICEF is developing a set of nutrition questions that can be embedded in ongoing survey platforms during the COVID pandemic; analyzing nutrition vulnerabilities to COVID-19 at the individual and population-level; summarizing service disruptions related to nutrition across the world; modelling the potential and actual impact of COVID on nutrition with partners; and identifying innovative approaches for the collection, analysis and management of nutrition data that do no harm, including developing a core set of indicators for monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on nutrition.

References

  1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en
  2. WFP. Global Monitoring of School Meals During COVID-19 School Closures. Accessed online 28 July 2020, url: <https://cdn.wfp.org/2020/school-feeding-map/index.html>.
  3. Fore HH, Dongyu Q, Beasley DM, Ghebreyesus T. Child malnutrition and COVID-19. The time to act is now.  The Lancet. July 2020, <https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31648-2>.

Resources

General

Select resources by UNICEF and partners on COVID-19 and nutrition

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