The Impact of COVID & the Ukraine War on Global Malnutrition

It was a pleasure speaking about why and what we are advocating for at Together Women Rise’s May national webinar. For those of who missed it, the recording can be found here. Our past two grantees—Yamba Malawi and Second Mile Haiti—are excellent examples of why and how we can address malnutrition. It is important to both support our grantees and their direct services as well as to advocate for Congress to fund nutrition, maternal and child health on a macro level. Each of these approaches — and even better, both together — will go a long way toward eliminating the tragedy of malnutrition.

To understand malnutrition we should begin with the definitions:

Stunting is based on a child’s height and age, and it is a measure of chronic nutritional deficiency. The child is small—physically and developmentally—for their age.

Wasting is based on a child’s weight and height, and it is a measure of acute nutritional deficiency. The child is underweight for their height, generally on an acute basis.

While wasting has a greater acute risk of death, stunting has a hugely negative effect on development, generating enormous economic costs through loss of human potential. It is devastating to see children functioning far below their chronologic age due to these permanent developmental insults. You might want to watch the following interactive video by Roger Thurow, as he follows the story of Hagirso, a boy in Ethiopia who he has followed over two decades as Hagirso tries to overcome the impact of stunting. This powerful story by the author of The First 1000 Days, sums up the need to prevent stunting far better than words can do. In fact, I often share it with congressional staff when I am asking for funding related to global malnutrition—a picture speaks a thousand words.

Food insecurity or hunger—both of which are widespread and rapidly increasing—and malnutrition are distinctly different. But both have been adversely impacted by the COVID pandemic and recently by the war in Ukraine. To this we must add the tremendous impact of climate change. Together, the net effect has been that people are choosing to leave their homes in order to feed their families—choosing to become refugees.

The impact of conflict added atop the pandemic is huge. Ukraine and Russia together represent the bread basket of the world —both in terms of grain produced and exported as well as being the major source of nitrogen for fertilizer. According to David Beasley, head of the World Food Program(WFP), they are now taking half rations from the hungry child and redirecting it to the starving one. What a terrible choice to be forced to make — essentially who shall live! And since half of the grain purchased by the WFP comes from Ukraine, food has been weaponized in this conflict. Despite the overall wealth in the world, we are allowing women and children to starve. We have the knowledge and the resources to combat malnutrition. The question is do we have the political will?

The numbers paint a truly disturbing picture: 22% of the world’s young children, or 149 million, are stunted and another 45 million are wasted.

Adding the impact of COVID means an additional 40 million wasted children will be seen between 2020 and 2030 as well as an additional 22 million with stunting.

Although we have greatly decreased the number of deaths in children under five over the past several decades, we have not ended the nutrition story.

I invite you to join us, as together we make a difference. You can reach out to your members of Congress on this issue, consider sending a letter to the editor, or join one of our webinars and see what advocacy is all about.

Our next monthly Advocacy Webinar will be on June 21 at 8:30 pm ET. You can sign up HERE.

Here are some helpful links.