Like people working on other major challenges, the authors of the Global Nutrition Report released this week, have needed to make some late adjustments to take account of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We do not know yet the full impacts the impacts on nutrition of COVID-19 and the measures to control the virus, but the Lancet has produced an estimate of the impact of reduced access to health services and food on child wasting (rapid weight loss due to acute malnutrition), indicating this impact alone could lead to betwen 7,500 and 43,800 additional child deaths per month.  As the Global Nutrition Report states:  “There is a real risk that, as nations strive to control the virus, the gains they have made in reducing hunger and malnutrition will be lost. These gains must be protected through increased and well-targeted official development assistance, as well as domestic resource allocations, focused on nutritional wellbeing.”   

The body of the report states clearly that the gains in global nutrition in recent years have been limited and frustratingly slow.  In assessing the overall progress against the global nutrition goals for 2025, the report notes:

  • Modest progress towards the goals of: reducing the number of children whose growth is stunted (well below the average height for their age, a measure of sustained malnutrition), reducing the proportion of children suffering from wasting (very low weight for their height) and increased exclusive breastfeeding.
  • Little or no progress globally in reducing anaemia, limiting the number of people who are overweight or obese, and limiting the number of people with diabetes.

While the number of children up to the age of 5 whose growth is stunted has fallen from 165.8 million in 2012 to 149 million in 2018, this still means that one in five children experience the on-going effects of stunting, which reduces their chances of success in education and earning income later in life, and also makes these adults vulnerable to other health conditions.

The impact of COVID-19 on nutrition results from a combination of diversion of resources from other health services, members of the public not being able to, or being afraid to, access other services, and in some cases severe restrictions on movement of people preventing them from accessing food or health services.  This makes increasing investment in nutrition programs even more essential.  

The policies to accelerate progress in improving nutrition go beyond the obvious measures of increasing access to healthy food and nutritional supplements.  The report notes that broader social policies, covering housing, labour, urban planning, transport, gender, education and social protection, affect nutrition outcomes, and should form part of each country’s nutrition strategies.

This broader set of interventions to improve nutrition outcomes requires additional resources, both within domestic budgets and in international development assistance.  

The Nutrition for Growth Summit, originally planned for December 2020, is an opportunity for the relevant players (governments, multilateral agencies, philanthropists and the private sector) to commit the resources to accelerate progress in nutrition.  The timing of the Summit is now uncertain (although the host country, Japan, is still committed to holding the Summit), but the event has taken on increased significance. 

The Australian Government does not need to wait for the Summit to make a start on increasing resources for nutrition. In its new International Development Policy, possibly to be announced before the end of this year, the Government can indicate an increased priority for nutrition in Australia’s development assistance, and the Federal Budget in October can include additional nutrition funding.  This is an important way in which Australia can contribute to a more positive new normal, especially for countries in our region.