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OpinionFood & Hunger

COVID-19 Pandemic Could Cause Widespread Stunting in Ghana

Rachel Toku-Appiah is the food and hunger campaigns associate at Global Citizen, based in Accra, Ghana.

As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic unfolds, many countries have restricted movement or implemented lockdowns as a means to slow the spread of the virus and give their health systems more time to prepare for an influx of patients. While these interventions are an important means to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, the impact on already vulnerable segments of society can be catastrophic, particularly when it comes to food security and nutrition.

Large numbers of people, including in my home country of Ghana, rely on a daily wage and have no savings that can be used to stock up on food staples to tide them through the lockdown period. Recognizing the need for everyone to access food on a daily basis, the lockdown in Ghana is partial, with certain categories of people, including food vendors, allowed to trade, albeit under guidelines designed to maintain social distancing and reduce the spread of the virus.

However, many people are still unable to procure the food they need because they lack the requisite funds. Unable to earn an income as the partial lockdown bars them from conducting their regular income-earning activities, they risk hunger and malnutrition.

This truth was made very clear to me when I recently ventured from my home in Accra to buy some food for the family. Within seconds of parking my car at the shopping center I went to, I was approached by two men, asking for money to buy sugar. A good Samaritan had given them a traditional staple — dried cassava, or “gari” as it is commonly called. Their request was for sugar so they could eat the cassava as a cereal, by adding water and sugar.

Barely moments after giving the men some money, I was approached by yet another. This time, the request was for money to buy bread. Following these encounters, I quickly returned home. It occurred to me on the drive home, through deserted streets, that the beggars I used to encounter on a regular day would be in a similar predicament, deprived of the opportunity to beg for alms. 

Still upset from what I had seen and experienced, I called one of my brothers who lives in Kumasi and narrated my experience to him. His response was that he had also experienced something similar. Just a day earlier, he was at the gate to his house when a young man hurriedly approached him. He was a construction worker and couldn’t go out to work because of the lockdown. His wife used to contribute to the family income by selling water to the other construction workers at the site where he worked. Now, with no income after almost two weeks, the man asked my brother to give him just enough to buy some rice to cook for his children.

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He explained that he had some oil, which he intended to add — nothing else. Ensuring good nutrition for the children did not even cross the man’s mind, he just needed something to fill the children’s tummies so they would stop crying from hunger. I noted the same of my own encounters — there was no request for money to buy meat, beans, or other forms of protein… no fruit or vegetables… just something to assuage the hunger.

Faced with a stark choice between going hungry and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 by going out and approaching strangers for assistance, some people are choosing the latter. It is relatively early days, but unless something is done to address the growing food insecurity, the outcome the lockdowns are intended to achieve may be compromised as people become desperate for food and take risks.

Ensuring that everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious, and affordable food requires that we minimise disruptions to food systems and, in some cases, fix them, while providing emergency food to meet the immediate shortfall for many households.

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Many faith-based organizations, the private sector, and even individuals in Ghana are helping to meet the immediate need. Together with my partner, we have helped provide food to support a number of people in our church. These are families we know or whose needs have been revealed to us by others in the church. It is possible that we have missed some, as have others who are also doing what they can to assist. A coordinated response is required to ensure that everyone who needs this kind of support receives it and measures are put in place to build resilience for the future. 

As the global effort to support COVID-19 responses are being developed and implemented, we have an opportunity to address food security and nutrition as part of an integral and coordinated response.

The impact of the pandemic could be devastating in terms of lives lost directly and indirectly, as people’s immune systems are weakened from hunger and malnutrition, and the risk of nutrition-related non-communicable diseases increases. The economic fallout from COVID-19 could result in millions more children becoming stunted in the short term, and undo long-term gains against malnutrition almost overnight.

Stunting caused by chronic malnutrition is largely irreversible. Without urgent and comprehensive action to ensure that everyone, including the most vulnerable, has access to enough nutritious food during the pandemic, the world may continue to face the adverse effects decades from now, as stunted children grow into stunted adults.