The pandemic of hunger
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the livelihoods of the most neglected communities in Nepal, with a direct impact on the food intake of family members, especially children.
Household loss of income means mothers also have inadequate nutrition, which again affects their children. A recent report by the World Food Programme (WFP) states that Nepal had up to 1.84 million pregnant and lactating women who were malnourished.
Babies are affected even before they are born when women lack adequate nutrition while pregnant. Newborns get mother’s milk lacking in nutrition, leading to greater risk of dying before the age five.
More than one-third of children under five face stunted growth, and with prolonged school closure many of the older children who rely on school lunches for a nutritious meal are also deprived of adequate nutrition.
“To ensure food security, governments must clearly define the principles and framework to provide food support to those in need,” says Bishow Parajuli, the World Food Programme (WFP) Representative and Country Director in India. “It must be contextual and linked to the needs of the citizens and its food systems. Targeting food support to focus on at-risk groups is at the heart of any need-based safety net.”
Neighbouring India has allocated an additional 5kg cereal free of cost to 813 million people under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. And although there are doubts about the food reaching the most vulnerable, it shows a bold attempt to address the food-pandemic nexus. Nepal has no such state-run program.
A study in the Front Public Health journal states that ‘despite some efforts in the 8 months since the first case was detected, the [Nepali] government's response so far has been insufficient’.
Parajuli says that instituting a dynamic food support program that continually assesses the needs of communities most at risk from malnutrition and is led by local leaders will help reach marginalised and underserved individuals.
“Such programs allow food support to be built into disaster and humanitarian responses and which also reduce the food insecurity impacts of Covid-19,” Parajuli explains.
State intervention on food security must take into account reliable distribution that reaches the most vulnerable, but also deliver a balanced nutritious diet – especially for children.
“Food aid must include a wide variety of food groups as well as specific supplementary nutritious food for children, pregnant and lactating women. And it is preferable if these are locally available foods and food preferences,” adds Parajuli.
To begin sourcing more food locally, Nepal’s agriculture-based economy which employs roughly 66% of the labour force in Nepal, will be relying on this year’s monsoon season more than ever. Although the monsoon has unleashed floods and landslides, it has been on time and vigorous, raising hopes of a good rice harvest.
The India Meteorological Department increased its 2021 monsoon forecast to ‘101 percent of the Long Period Average (LPA), meaning most parts of the country can expect to get normal to above normal rainfall’. In June, Nepal on average got up to 30% more rain than normal.
Faced with the prospect of widespread hunger due to loss of income during the pandemic, this is good news for food security. In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, India saw surplus production enabling the export of 19.8 million tonnes of rice and wheat.
Elsewhere in the world, Covid-19 has exacerbated food insecurity, leaving roughly 155 million people acutely food insecure in 2020. On a global scale, the WFP estimates that the number of people living with acute hunger will increase from 130 million to 270 million in 2020-21.
Children in developing countries facing a food crisis are most vulnerable to food insecurity. The 2021 Global Report of Food Crises (GRFC) report stated that last year, 15.8 million children under 5 years old were wasted and 75.2 million children under 5 years old were stunted in the 55 food-crisis countries.
"For these children the situation is especially grave. More than one in three of all wasted children – 16 million – and just under one half of all stunted children – 75 million children – live in these 55 countries,” says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “The pandemic has deepened this crisis, disrupting diets, services and practices that protect children and their families from under-nutrition.”
The report lists the main drivers of global acute food insecurity: conflict, economic shock including those resulting from Covid-19, and weather extremes caused by climate change. These problems often amplify each other.
For its part, Nepal is coming out of lockdown and economic activities have picked up. But inflation is high in urban areas because of transport bottlenecks, and a recent survey showed that a third of families had cut back on food items.
UNICEF surveys conducted in May 2020 to determine the impact of Covid-19 found that almost two-thirds of interviewed households lost a significant portion of their income and roughly one-fourth of them had inadequate access to food.
A more in-depth analysis in WFP’s April 2021 report revealed that 46% of families who were getting money from family members working abroad lost income along with 33% of labourers in agriculture and cash crop producers.
Additionally, 25% of non-agriculture daily wage labourers reported having a loss of income as well as workers in other job sectors such as traders.