The economic impact of COVID-19 on the world’s most populous region is threatening to further undermine efforts to improve diets and nutrition of nearly two billion people in Asia and the Pacific who were already unable to afford healthy diets prior to the pandemic, says a new report published today by four specialized agencies of the United Nations.
UN agencies warn that the economic impact of COVID-19 and worsening inequalities will fuel malnutrition for billions in Asia and the Pacific, including Afghanistan.
The report found that 1.9 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet, even before the COVID-19 outbreak and the damage it has since caused to economies and individual livelihoods.
The report also highlights the dire situation in Afghanistan, which has the highest prevalence of undernourished children in South Asian countries – double that of other countries. In Afghanistan, 5 out of 10 poor children show signs of irreversible chronic malnutrition, the report says.
The report says that Afghanistan has the highest undernourishment rate in South Asia, more than double compared with Pakistan, addign that Afghan children have the 4th highest stunting rate in Asia.
“We are seeing increases in number of children identified as wasted month by month,” said UNICEF Afghanistan Country Office Chief of Nutrition. “We estimate there will be just under one million children in Afghanistan severely wasted in the next 12 months which is 30% higher than last year. We attribute this to the effects of COVID-19 on poor families.”
The diet for children and mothers is very poor, the report says, adding that Afghanistan is the second worse out of 23 countries for diet quality where studies show that 6 out of 10 children between 6 months and 2 years of age had no fruit or vegetables in the last 24 hours and 7 out of 10 had no protein.
Due to higher prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for poor people in Asia and the Pacific to achieve healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensure food security and nutrition for all – and for mothers and children in particular, the report says.
The report says that more than 350 million people in the Asia and Pacific region were undernourished in 2019, or nearly half of the global total.
Across the region, an estimated 74.5 million children under 5 years of age were stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffered from wasting (too thin for height). The majority of these children live in Southern Asia with nearly 56 million stunted and more than 25 million wasted.
The impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of 2, the report says. Young children, especially when they start eating their “first foods” at 6 months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts.