Coronavirus: Malnutrition could be deepened in Africa – WHO chief

Farm Produce [Photo credit - Graphic Online]
Farm Produce [Photo credit - Graphic Online]

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday warned that the potential impact of COVID -19 on food security in Africa is likely to exacerbate the already existing burden of malnutrition.

The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, in a press statement said the impact of the disease is expected to be greater among those grappling with food scarcity and malnutrition.

“COVID-19 is unfolding in Africa against a backdrop of worrying levels of hunger and undernourishment, which could worsen as the virus threatens livelihoods and household economies,” the statement said.

“Hunger and malnutrition heighten vulnerability to diseases, the consequences of which could be far reaching if not properly addressed,” she added.

She said widespread food insecurity will likely increase due to movement restrictions.

In Africa, WHO estimates that one in five people is undernourished. According to the WHO, the continent has the highest burden of malnutrition compared with other parts of the world, in terms of percentage of the population.

“While there has been little research so far into malnutrition as a co-morbidity for COVID-19, people with weakened immune systems as a result of undernourishment are at greater risk of a range of serious illnesses and so are likely to be more severely affected by the virus,” it said.

Reports of food insecurity have suggested that as many as 73 million people in Africa were acutely food insecure.

Also, the World Food Programme (WFP) has said over 40 million people across West Africa will face desperate food shortages in coming months.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions

The WHO said COVID-19 is exacerbating food shortages, as food imports, transportation and agricultural production have all been hampered by a combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and physical distancing measures.

It warned that the burden of movement restrictions and lockdowns is being felt particularly strongly by low-income households.

Also, the burden is felt by those working in the informal economy due to their loss of livelihoods and inability to access markets.

“Some countries have already announced measures to mitigate some of the risks of lockdowns on food supply, from in-kind distributions to this week’s announcement by Heads of State of the East African Community of their intention to develop a mechanism for tracking and certification of cross-border truck drivers to ensure the safe delivery of essential goods,” the statement highlighted.

It also revealed the impact of resorting to consumption of processed and canned foods combined with reduced physical exercise. It said the consumption could worsen obesity, diabetes and risk factors that have been documented as increasing the severity of COVID-19.

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“The most recent global nutrition report estimated that 17% of women and 7% of men in Africa are obese,” the statement said.

“COVID-19 does not treat us equally,” Ms Moeti said, adding that a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is a key factor in how our bodies respond to the virus.

She said when the people do not consume the right food or enough food, human bodies will find it harder to fight off COVID-19 infection.

WHO has developed guidance on how to maintain a healthy diet during confinement, emphasizing the importance of wholegrains and cereals, lentils, peas and beans.

WHO is also issuing guidance on measures that countries should have in place as lockdowns end.

She advised countries to put in place essential health services to meet the challenges posed by malnutrition while relaxing the lock down.

“If the epidemiological evidence suggests that restrictions need to remain in place, governments should ensure that measures are taken to alleviate hunger that might arise as a result of these restrictions,” she advised in the statement.

WHO, thereby, recommended that Member States provide assistance to food insecure households.


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