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Hunger strikes in the midst of a global health pandemic

A Nurse of a Concern Supported Nutrition Site in Rohingya Refugee Site is performing clinical assessment of a Severely Malnourished child. Photo: Md. Al-Nasim / Concern Worldwide
A Nurse of a Concern Supported Nutrition Site in Rohingya Refugee Site is performing clinical assessment
News30 April 2020Caroline Maxwell

As the world responds to the Covid-19 pandemic, new figures are adding to mounting evidence suggesting that hunger could become an even greater humanitarian crisis. Concern’s Senior Policy Officer for Nutrition Caroline explains why urgent action is needed. 

Before the rapid global shutdown caused by Covid-19, almost half the world’s population were already struggling to meet even their most basic needs, including food to eat. 

The latest annual Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) highlights that last year 135 million people across 55 countries experienced food shortages and malnutrition - the highest figure in four years. The majority of these people also live in countries affected by conflict (77 million), climate change (34 million), and economic crises (24 million people).  

And this was before Covid-19 struck.  

We know that Covid-19 does not discriminate and is affecting nearly every country. However, our experience tells us that people urgently in need of food and nutrition assistance are the most vulnerable to the consequences of this pandemic. People living in extreme poverty have very limited capacity to cope with the health or socio-economic consequences of the virus. 

Without action now, twice the number of people will be acutely food insecure this year

New figures from the World Food Programme warn that Covid-19 could push 265 million people into acute food insecurity by the end of this year. That’s almost double last year’s total.  

And behind these alarming figures are real people’s lives, many of whom are already struggling to afford enough food each day. They’re already living in countries with weak health systems. And we know that Covid-19 will impact disproportionately on women and children.  

Asra*, a trained mother takes the MUAC measurement of her own child and identified her degree of malnutrition at a concern supported nutrition site in Rohingya Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. Photo: Shah Arafat Rahman / Concern Worldwide
Asra*, a trained mother takes the MUAC measurement of her own child and identified her degree of malnutrition

Responding to Covid-19 where it’s needed most

The response to this looming hunger crisis is also made all the more challenging due to Covid-19. Travel restrictions on humanitarian staff and disruptions to supply chains are making it harder than ever to distribute essential supplies to the world’s most vulnerable people. This is likely to have a negative impact on malnutrition rates, particularly among children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly. 

The GRFC reports that 75 million children were stunted (too thin for average height) and 17 million suffered from wasting (too thin for average weight) in 2019. We know that good nutrition is the first line of defense against disease, as it is essential to developing a healthy immune system. 

As the world prioritises domestic responses to the virus and the demand for a global response escalates, the need for investment in strong health systems and economies that are resilient and robust enough to manage pandemics is greater than ever. 

How Concern is gearing up our response

Whether people are living in an overcrowded refugee camp fleeing war and cannot access food, or living in a country hit by drought that affects their ability to grow crops, over 50 years of experience has made one thing clear: people’s immediate and long-term needs have to be at the heart of our programmes. This approach not only saves lives immediately but also builds their resilience to future emergencies.  

At Concern we have launched a Coronavirus Emergency Appeal while adapting our programmes to ensure life-saving work can continue. For instance, our teams have distributed soap, detergent, and hygiene kits to 84,000 displaced people in camps in northern Iraq; improved basic water systems and drilled wells in the Central African Republic, and intensified public information ‘wash your hands’ campaigns of Covid-19 in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Malawi.  

We are also giving parents longer supplies of therapeutic foods so that they do not have to visit health centres as frequently. Where we anticipate supply chain problems, we are pre-positioning stocks of essential supplies.  

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But we can’t do it alone - political leadership and resources are needed, now.

Now is the time for our political leaders around the world to unite and to focus on the challenges Covid-19 poses. That’s why Concern Worldwide is calling for: 

  • All leaders to support the UN Secretary General’s call for an immediate global ceasefire.  

  • The Covid-19 UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan to be fully funded, and work with those best able to respond quickly on the ground. 

  • All donors and partners to maintain ongoing food and nutrition programmes to avoid the hunger crisis unfolding, while integrating nutrition into their Covid-19 responses. 


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