Hunger Grows

From Latin America to South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa, more families than ever are staring down a future without enough food. The analysis published Monday found about 128,000 more young children will die over the first 12 months of the virus.

All around the world, the coronavirus and its restrictions are pushing already hungry communities over the edge, cutting off meager farms from markets and isolating villages from food and medical aid. Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations. From Latin America to South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa, more families than ever are staring down a future without enough food. The analysis published Monday found about 128,000 more young children will die over the first 12 months of the virus.

Further, more than 550,000 additional children each month are being struck by what is called wasting, according to the U.N. — malnutrition that manifests in spindly limbs and distended bellies. Over a year, that’s up 6.7 million from last year’s total of 47 million. Wasting and stunting can permanently damage children physically and mentally, transforming individual tragedies into a generational catastrophe. The rise in child deaths worldwide would reverse global progress for the first time in decades. Deaths of children younger than 5 had declined steadily since 1980, to 5.3 million around the world in 2018, according to a UNICEF report. About 45 percent of the deaths were due to undernutrition.

“The food security effects of the COVID crisis are going to reflect many years from now,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, the World Health Organization head of nutrition. “There is going to be a societal effect.”

Most stunted children never catch up, dampening the productivity of poor countries, according to a report released this month by the Chatham House think tank.

In Burkina Faso, for example, one in five young children is chronically malnourished. Food prices have spiked, and 12 million of the country’s 20 million residents don’t get enough to eat. Lanizou’s husband, Yakouaran Boue, used to sell onions to buy seeds and fertilizer, but then the markets closed. Even now, a 50-kilogram bag of onions sells for a dollar less, which means less seed to plant for next year.

“I’m worried that this year we won’t have enough food to feed her,” he said, staring down at his daughter over his wife’s shoulder. “I’m afraid she’s going to die.”

“Before the disease we didn’t have anything,” said Aminata Mande. “Now with the disease we don’t have anything also.”

Burkina Faso was already facing a growing food crisis, with rising violence linked to militants cutting families off from their farms. With the advent of the coronavirus, the government closed markets, restricted movement and shut down public transport, making it much harder for traders to buy and sell food. While malnutrition deaths routinely rise during the four-month wait for the next harvest in October, this year is worse than anyone can remember, according to physicians and aid workers. On the World Food Program’s hunger map, nearly all of Burkina Faso is a red zone of need. Even though the Tuy province produces the most corn in the country, food there is not reaching those who need it most. In Tuy between March and April, the number of underweight newborns increased by 40%, signifying that the mothers were most likely malnourished during pregnancy. Child deaths due to malnutrition are also escalating.

In April, World Food Program head David Beasley warned that the coronavirus economy would cause global famines “of biblical proportions” this year. There are different stages of what is known as food insecurity; famine is officially declared when, along with other measures, 30% of the population suffers from wasting. The agency estimated in February that one in every three people in Venezuela was already going hungry, as inflation rendered many salaries nearly worthless and forced millions to flee abroad. Then the virus arrived.

“The parents of the children are without work,” said Annelise Mirabal, who works with a foundation that helps malnourished children in Maracaibo, the city in Venezuela thus far hardest hit by the pandemic. “How are they going to feed their kids?”

These days, many new patients are the children of migrants who are making long journeys back to Venezuela from Peru, Ecuador or Colombia, where their families became jobless and unable to buy food during the pandemic. Others are the children of migrants who are still abroad and have not been able to send back money for more food.

“Every day we receive a malnourished child,” said Dr. Francisco Nieto, who works in a hospital in the border state of Tachira. He added that they look “like children we haven’t seen in a long time in Venezuela,” alluding to those in famines in parts of Africa. In May, Nieto recalled, after two months of quarantine in Venezuela, 18-month-old twins arrived at his hospital with bodies bloated from malnutrition. The children’s mother was jobless and living with her own mother. She told the doctor she had only been able to feed them a simple drink made with boiled bananas. Nieto said aid groups have provided some relief, but their work has been limited by COVID-19 quarantines. A home set up in Tachira to receive malnourished children after they are released from the hospital is no longer in operation. So now children are sent directly back to their families, many of whom are still unable to feed them properly.

“It’s very frustrating,” Nieto said. “The children get lost.”

In Afghanistan, restrictions on movement prevent many families from bringing their malnourished children to hospitals for food and aid just when they need it most.

“Transportation between Kabul and the provinces was not allowed regularly and also people were afraid of coronavirus,” Amiri explained. Last year, 10 times as many malnourished children filled the ward.

Afghanistan is now in a red zone of hunger, with severe childhood malnutrition spiking from 690,000 in January to 780,000 — a 13% increase, according to UNICEF. Food prices have risen by more than 15%, and a recent study by Johns Hopkins University indicated an additional 13,000 Afghans younger than 5 could die. Four in 10 Afghan children are already stunted. Stunting happens when families live on a cheap diet of grains or potatoes, with supply chains in disarray and money scarce.

The same is true of hospital beds in multiple countries, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

In Yemen, restrictions on movement have also blocked the distribution of aid, along with the stalling of salaries and price hikes. The Arab world’s poorest country is suffering further from a fall in remittances and a huge drop in funding from humanitarian agencies.

Yemen is now on the brink of famine, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which uses surveys, satellite data and weather mapping to pinpoint the places most in need. A UNICEF report predicted that the number of malnourished children could reach 2.4 million by the end of the year, a 20% increase.

Some of the worst hunger still occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. In Sudan, 9.6 million people are living from one meal to the next in acute food insecurity — a 65% increase from the same time last year.

Lockdowns across Sudanese provinces, as around the world, have dried up work and incomes for millions. The global economic downturn has brought supply chains to a standstill, and restrictions on public transport have disrupted agricultural production. With inflation hitting 136%, prices for basic goods have more than tripled.

“It has never been easy but now we are starving, eating grass, weeds, just plants from the earth,” said Ibrahim Youssef, director of the Kalma camp for internally displaced people in war-ravaged south Darfur.

Long before the pandemic hit, Sudan’s economy had plummeted, especially after the oil-rich south seceded in 2011. Decades of economic mismanagement under Omar al-Bashir led to a surge in food prices, and the transitional government now in power has struggled to stop the tailspin. Natural disasters are making the situation even worse. The country’s production of grain has dropped by 57% compared to last year, largely due to pests and seasonal floods. And swarms of desert locusts have already infested three Sudanese provinces, threatening more losses to farmers. Internally displaced people in the restive provinces of Darfur, Kassala and Kordofan have been hit hardest, and the poorest say they can barely afford one meal a day.

“The hunger here is not any normal hunger,” said Adam Gomaa, a local activist in Kabkabiya, North Darfur, who helps run displacement camps in the area.

AP News

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