As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses and lockdowns continue, even more people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition due to their inability to access nutritious food. The pandemic has revealed the importance not only of alleviating immediate hunger produced by the sudden loss of movement and restrictions to economic activity, but also the longer-term effects of a lack of nutrition arising from the inability to access or pay for nutritious food during the pandemic. Children are particularly vulnerable: the lack of an adequate diet can lead to persistent losses in health, education and productivity that can have lasting effects. The after-effects of the pandemic could be more severe than its immediate effects, writes Jimena Pacheco.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the COVID-19 crisis will expose 265 million people to the threat of severe hunger. The effects of the increase of hunger worldwide could be more catastrophic than the virus itself on the long run. Hence, it is of the utmost importance to implement policies that fight the pandemic from a holistic and intertemporal perspective, including the challenges presented by the accompanying hunger crisis.
According to the IMF, the global economy will suffer a downturn of -3% in 2020, pushing 200 million people out of employment. In addition, millions of self-employed and informal workers will suffer from the abrupt interruption of their income flows brought about by illness or measures to curb virus transmission, including total lockdowns that prevent the normal circulation of people, goods, and services. In addition to the contraction of household income, the prices of cereals and other foodstuffs have increased as a result of trade barriers and difficulties transporting goods due to the lockdowns. As a consequence, we observe a deterioration in the nutrient intake of the population.
Both the quantity and quality of calories are affected. The disruption in food markets has decreased access to vegetables, fruits, and proteins. These food products are labour intensive and need good storage and good distribution logistics, all of which have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to supply shortages, the mobility restrictions and volatility of the price of quality food products, as well as sudden income cuts, have pushed households to consume more perishable, cheaper, and less nutritious foods.
But not only the direct effects of interrupted distribution chains are visible in the nutrient intake patterns of the poorest populations. The most vulnerable populations usually live in resource-poor countries with weak fiscal finances, tight health budgets, and high debts. The coronavirus crisis has led these countries to reallocate resources to fight the pandemic, leading to the neglect or interruption of state-driven food programs. Children who were able to receive a square meal at schools can no longer do so, and food- and cash-transfer programs have also been interrupted. The WFP estimates that the school closures and mobility restrictions have prevented 368 million children from receiving meals through school food programs worldwide—a devastating observation. While some countries have ensured that children remain fed, there are no data available on the coverage and quality of those alternative solutions.
Poor childhood nutrition has lasting effects
It is not only the immediate hunger caused by the COVID-19 crisis that is worrisome. The insufficient intake of nutrients during childhood increases vulnerability to infectious diseases, and starvation leads to premature death. Those children who survive are likely to face the lifelong impacts of malnutrition. Malnutrition during childhood generates changes in an individual’s metabolism to save energy. Furthermore, women who have suffered starvation during childhood are shorter and have a higher probability of giving birth to babies with a low birth weight. Besides, children who did not have sufficient nutrients during childhood perform worse in school and are less productive as adults. All these mechanisms that are being fed by coronavirus responses will generate long-term impacts that are likely to persist for more than one generation if we do not counteract the ‘COVID hunger’ now.
The way forward: immediate action and long-term monitoring
The need for timely and adequate policies to prevent hunger and starvation is pressing. Bodies such as the FAO and WFP have suggested a number of measures that can be implemented to combat immediate hunger and a longer-term lack of adequate nutrition linked to economic losses and poverty. These include:
- Installing emergency cash transfers that smooth the income shocks of the vulnerable households
- Assuring the correct functioning of food markets by decreasing barriers for food trade
- Improving dietary quality, among others, by assuring the access to vegetables, fruits, and meat at affordable prices in local markets, or increasing the quantity and quality of school meals
- Supporting maternal services by strengthening public health services, especially regarding the access to nutrition supplements
- Promoting homestead food production.
However, the implementation of these recommendations does not seem feasible in countries that are resource strapped and already fail to invest in quality nutrition, healthcare, and food-producing agriculture. We need commitment from governments and international organizations to allocate enough resources to fight hunger today in order to avoid future costs for society. Furthermore, we have to assure that the response to the ‘COVID-19 hunger’ and the monitoring of its effects persist long after the pandemic has ended.
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Natascha Wagner for her thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.
 Also see https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf
 The situation is especially difficult in urban areas, where households are unable to smooth the consumption shock through household-level food production.
 There are even more channels that contribute to rising hunger and lack of food supplies—the pandemic stopped the movement of migrant workers involved in harvesting activities, resulting in a loss of production for many farmers because of a lack of workers to pick vegetables.
 Nutritious food can be 10 times more expensive than basic calories as a result of COVID-19.
 For example, in Madrid, the municipality controversially signed a contract with a fast-food provider to cover the meals for vulnerable children. Health institutions and families have raised complaints about the nutritional quality of these meals that the children received for almost two months. See https://elpais.com/espana/madrid/2020-05-03/las-pizzas-de-ayuso-y-algunos-kilos-de-mas.html [in Spanish].
 World Bank data show that on average around 7% of a country’s GDP is dedicated to healthcare. For OECD countries it reaches 10%, while it is under 5% in Latin America and Southeast Asia. In the least-developed countries, the expenditure in healthcare is as low as 1% of a country’s GDP. See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.GHED.GD.ZS.
Title Image Credit: Jimena Pacheco
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.
About the authors:
Jimena Pacheco is a development economics Ph.D. candidate at the ISS. Her research interests rely in development, health and education economics. Currently, she is working in the impact of negative shocks -economic and natural crisis- in human capital formation in Ecuador and Spain as main cases.