New Delhi: The poor in general, and those suffering from malnutrition among them, are at higher risks of contracting coronavirus infection, highlighting the weakness of the food and health systems across the world and more so in India, says a report.
The Global Nutrition Report 2020 comes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic spreading at a much faster clip in the country, leaving over 78,000 infected and killing over 2,500.
Tens of thousands of poor and daily wagers are on transit in most daring conditions across the country where public transport is still patchy, it said.
The report notes that one in nine of the world’s population or a whopping 820 million are hungry wherein India alone is the single largest contributor as most of them cannot access or afford healthy food, while one in three is overweight or obese.
Ironically, the report said, both the under-fed poor/undernourished and the over-fed or the obese are at risks with the latter facing 10 times more risk from the deadly virus infection.
It further said that following the spread of the pandemic, millions of households in formerly food-secure regions of the world have fallen into severe food insecurity, while in India various media reports say tens of millions of the migrant workers and their poor families face starvation as the lockdown lingers.
The report also warns that the levels of hunger and malnutrition could double within the space of just a few weeks.
Accordingly, the report calls for an overhaul of the world’s food and health systems to tackle malnutrition, which has become a threat-multiplier given the coronavirus pandemic and its infectious grip over the poor which is now the leading cause of ill-health and deaths globally.
The report says most of the poor across the world cannot access or afford healthy food primarily because of agricultural systems that favour calories over nutrition on one hand and on the other the ubiquity and low cost of highly processed foods.
“An increasing number of countries have the double burden of malnutrition, obesity and other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer,” notes the report.
Venkatesh Mannar, a special adviser on nutrition to the Tata Trusts and the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, two of the organisations that has funded the report, told PTI that “the COVID-19 has exposed the deep inequality of our food system, wherein both under-nutrition and over-nutrition as visible from abject poverty and obesity have come to the fore.
“And both of these segments of the people are at higher risk to COVID-19 infections. In fact, the obese are 10 more at risk to COVID infection and fatality than the rest of the populations,” says Mannar.
Asked whether most of the close to 3 lakh dead or the 4.3 million infected with the virus are poor and obese, he answered in the affirmative saying many studies have established that the obese are among largest of the dead.
This is also evident from the fact that a vast majority of the dead are from the richest nations like the US, Britain, France, Italy and Spain and the least from Africa. At over 83,300 dead, nearly a fifth of the total casualties are in the US alone.
On the peculiar condition of India where a third of its 136 crore are poor, Mannar said the bigger problem in the country is not poverty now as the number of the poor and the malnourished is coming down, but over-nutrition as the rate with which the number of the obese is rising much faster.
As the world’s leading report on the state of global nutrition, Global Nutrition Report 2020 underlines the need to address food inequity to end malnutrition in all its forms as food and health inequity are the major causes for malnutrition -– both under-nutrition and over-nutrition or overweight/ obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases.
On the risk of more coronavirus infections among the poor and under-/over-nourished, the report says, “undernourished have weaker immune systems, and are at greater risk of severe illness due to the pandemic.
At the same time, poor metabolic health, including obesity and diabetes, is strongly linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes including the risk of death”.
Stressing that good nutrition is an essential part of an individual’s defence against the virus, the report says nutritional resilience is a key element of a society’s readiness to combat the pandemic threat.
“Focussing on nutritional well-being provides opportunities for establishing synergies between public health and equity, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
And the COVID-19 exposes the vulnerability and weaknesses of our already fragile food systems which is already stressed by increasing climate extremes,” says the report.
On India, the report notes that the country has had some success in reducing the number of underweight children and adolescents.
“Between 2000 and 2016, these rates declined from 66 to 58.1 per cent for boys and from 54.2 to 50.1 per cent for girls.
But is still high compared to the average of 35.6 per cent for boys and 31.8 per cent for girls in Asia.
Additionally, 37.9 per cent Indian children under-5 being stunted and 20.8 per cent wasted, compared to the Asia average of 22.7 per cent and 9.4 per cent, respectively, says the report.
While diet-related illness continue to be an issue, with one in two women of reproductive age being anaemic, rates of overweight and obesity continue to rise, affecting almost one-fifth of adults with 21.6 per cent females and 17.8 per cent men being obese.
Also, India is home to largest number of within-country malnutrition inequalities based on communities at the sub-national level, with UP having over 40 per cent children stunted on average and at 50.7 per cent among the poor.
The same applies for overweight/obesity, where there are nearly double as many obese adult females than there are males — 5.1 per cent against 2.7 per cent, the report said.