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A new report released by Save the Children today warns that the world is on the brink of a nutrition crisis, with pandemic-related malnutrition projected to kill an average of 153 children a day over the next two years if action is not taken.  


The new report – Nutrition Critical – shows the impact of COVID-19 has led to an increase in poverty, a loss of livelihoods, and reduced access to health and nutrition services, pushing up rates of hunger and malnutrition. Save the Children says the pandemic could reverse years of progress made in the battle against malnutrition, with children in Asia and sub-Sahara Africa being hardest hit – especially those in poorer households or in crises and conflict zones.  


“Even before the pandemic hit, conflict, natural disasters and climate change have led to many communities struggling to provide children with enough healthy food, with one in three children under five suffering from malnutrition,” Save the Children New Zealand’s Chief Executive Heidi Coetzee says.  


“Families in Fiji, like many others across the Pacific, live on the frontlines of climate change.  Increasing drought and water scarcity, rainfall changes, coastal flooding and erosion all combine to threaten children’s food security and nutrition. The prevalence of children suffering from stunting in the Pacific is 38.4%, higher than Asia (31.7%), Eastern Africa (34.5%), and Middle Africa (31.5%).  Stunting is irreversible and in severe cases has a long-term impact on children’s physical and mental development.” 


The report follows earlier Save the Children reports of increased worldwide child poverty resulting from COVID-19 and comes the same day as official advice to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern advises that child poverty levels in New Zealand are set to rise due to the impact of COVID-19, with families already in significant hardship most affected.  


Save the Children warns that vulnerable communities across the globe are already facing an extreme food emergency, as 11 million children under five face extreme hunger or starvation, including in five ‘hunger hotspots’ caused by conflict and the effects of climate change. In Yemen it is conflict exacerbated by the overwhelming pressure of COVID-19 that is contributing to shockingly high rates of malnutrition. Recent UN data shows that some 16.2 million people will be facing high levels of acute food shortages in early 2021. This includes 7.35 million children, with an estimated 100,000 children in the south of Yemen currently experiencing severe acute malnutrition. 


“Even at home in Aotearoa, we are experiencing increased food insecurity,” says Ms Coetzee.  


“We have the second highest rates of child obesity in the OECD – a form of undernutrition and most likely to affect children living in poorer households.  A recent study by the University of Auckland found that New Zealand children and adolescents are being targeted by advertising for unhealthy food.” 


Gabriella Waaijman, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children, says “The COVID-19 crisis has led to a wave of new malnutrition cases among vulnerable communities, and we must stop this threat in its tracks. To truly put an end to malnutrition and hunger, we must tackle the root causes of acute nutritious food shortages. That means putting an end to global conflict, tackling changing climate, building more resilient communities and ensuring aid workers have unhindered access to the most vulnerable communities. Investing now can prevent these deaths. The pandemic has forced us all to rethink the society we live in, giving us a chance to build back better and support children in fulfilling their potential.” 


To avert a nutrition crisis in the coming years, Save the Children urges governments and other organisations to take immediate action. This means:  

  • Including children in the decisions that impact them, including health and nutrition
  • Ensure financing, by making long term and flexible commitments to address malnutrition
  • Preserving and scaling up critical food, nutrition, health, water, sanitation, hygiene and livelihood assistance
  • Prioritising humanitarian cash and voucher support for families in order to increase their household income
  • Urgently addressing malnutrition in fragile or conflict affected regions  
  • Strengthen essential health and nutrition services.  

Together with the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, Save the Children emphasised that 2021 is a pivotal year for nutrition. The launch of its report coincides with a kick-off event this week for Nutrition for Growth 2021, convened by the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh, in partnership with the Government of Japan. The event celebrated new policy and financing commitments to nutrition from a range of stakeholders and formally launched a Nutrition For Growth Year of Action, that includes milestone events leading up to the Summit in Tokyo in late December 2021.  


Click link to read full Nutrition Critical report


Methodology: The Standing Together for Nutrition (STfN) consortium modelled the economic impacts of the pandemic and correlated that with the impact a downward economy has on child and maternal malnutrition. This was matched with estimates on the disruptions to the delivery of nutrition services and assumptions on economic recovery in 2021 and 2022.