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How COVID-19 has harmed nutrition in Asia and the Pacific

  |   SUN Country Network, SUN UN Network

The impact of COVID-19 on the world’s most populous region is threatening access to healthy diet  for nearly two billion people in Asia and the Pacific. This is the conclusion of report recently published by UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization. The report found that 1.9 billion people were already unable to afford a healthy diet before the COVID-19 outbreak, a situation made worse by the damage the pandemic has since caused to economies and individual livelihoods.

Complementary data collected through a “UN COVID-19 socio-economic impact assessment in Cambodia” indicates that although access to food has not been affected greatly, people have been forced by economic circumstances to adopt coping strategies including borrowing food, reducing food intake and greater reliance on cheaper options. The findings, revealed for the first time today, show that in Cambodia more than half of households have at some points had to cut back on the size and quality of meals.

Food prices increased during early 2020, especially for meat, eggs and fish products in Phnom Penh, and fresh vegetables in provincial markets. Although prices then stabilised, many households decreased their food intake and diet diversity in important food categories such as products rich in protein, vitamin A and iron. These impacts are most worrying for more vulnerable household members, especially pregnant women and children. The problems increased in the period surveyed: in August, 30% of women’s diets failed to reach minimum diversity, but this increased to 50% by November.

Households also resorted to more radical livelihood coping strategies, such as reducing essential spending on education and health, selling productive assets and sending household members to other provinces to look for work.

As an effort to reduce hardship and meet needs, the Royal Government of Cambodia expanded its social cash transfer program to more than 600,000 of its most vulnerable citizens. However, more investment is required to further expand social assistance and ensure improvements are made to food systems to increase access to nutritious foods, boost productivity, improve food safety, and protect employment, while stimulating demand for domestically produced foods.

 

“Malnutrition has been a long-term challenge in Cambodia, one recognised by the Government and its development partners. Much progress has been made in the last decade, but COVID-19 is putting that progress in jeopardy,” said Foroogh Foyouzat, Representative of UNICEF in Cambodia. “As UN agencies working closely with the Government, we commend it on its expansion of cash transfer programmes to reduce hardship. Now we must invest in the critical first thousand days of children’s lives. Such investment also contributes to each child’s educational attainments and productivity for the rest of their life.”

Regionally, more than 350 million people in the Asia and Pacific area were undernourished in 2019 – half of the global total. Across the region, an estimated 74.5 million children under 5 years of age suffered from stunting (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffered from wasting (too thin for their height). The majority of these children live in Southern Asia where there are nearly 56 million stunted children and more than 25 million wasted children.

Cambodia is one of the countries with the highest malnutrition rates in the region, with 32% of children under five identified as stunted and 10% identified as wasted. The UN agencies mentioned above are committed to working with all partners to realise the goals of the National Strategy of Food Security and Nutrition so that all children receive improved nutrition and a better start in life.

Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2020: Maternal and Child Diets at the Heart of Improving Nutrition read here the report.

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