Recently, our country’s leaders and medical representatives have publicly debated the effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on the malnutrition rates of our most vulnerable populations. Before COVID-19, a significant number of South Africans did not have access to sufficient food and were going hungry on a daily basis. Today, the Human Sciences Research Council1 reports an upward trajectory in hunger experienced by these populations, particularly children.
Child malnutrition is well documented in South Africa and, unfortunately, is progressively getting worse. Reflecting this deteriorating situation, stunting rates – an indicator for chronic undernutrition and lack of food – have increased from 21% in 2008 to 27% in 20162 according to the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), a report compiled by the National Department of Health (NDoH), Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), and ICF.
“The intensity and visibility of hunger have been catapulted into the spotlight during COVID-19. Long winding queues for food parcels will be a feature of the pandemic that will stay with us for years to come. What is not in the eye of the public, however, are the malnutrition rates that underlie child deaths in South Africa,” says Chantell Witten from the South African Civil Society for Women’s, Adolescents’ and Children’s Health (SACSoWACH).
Caption: Since the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, there has been an upsurge of organisations and individuals engaged in providing food to affected households.
“While this is heartening to witness, many of the household food packs have, unfortunately, not been tailored for the nutritional needs of children,” says Witten. Severe acute malnutrition remains a significant underlying cause of child mortality. It is still associated with one-third of all child in-hospital deaths according to the 2018 interim report from the Committee for the Morbidity and Mortality of Children (COMMiC). More worrisome, and possibly a factor under-estimating this figure, is that just under 50% of under-five-year-old deaths occurred outside the health sector.
“COVID-19 is a threat to health and a major global disrupter; however, hunger has shown itself to be a more tangible threat. We need to ensure sufficient and sustainable food supplies are made available to vulnerable communities. At this time, demand still exceeds supply despite the multiple systems put in place to address our country’s hunger problems. If South Africa is to survive COVID-19 and its ensuing hunger pandemic, government, civil society, and the private sector will need to work together,” concludes, Precious Robinson, Chairperson of SACSoWACH.