An African proverb says: “When the music changes, so does the dance.” As governments around the world strive to protect their populations from the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of decisive leadership has never been more important, especially in the area of nutrition .
When we established African Leaders for Nutrition four years ago, our goal was to highlight groundbreaking ideas for tackling malnutrition on the continent.
None of the founders of our group – the president of the African Development Bank Akinwumi A. Adesina , the late United Nations Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan and myself – could have imagined the burden that the pandemic would impose on the global agenda for development.
The threat of this new virus requires us to tackle malnutrition in new ways. Covid-19 revealed inefficiencies and inequalities in all of our efforts to achieve robust and long-lasting improvements in nutrition. The growing number of cases of contagion in Africa threatens to further increase hunger and malnutrition, and made it clear that our thinking must change.
African leaders have a particular obligation to mitigate the economic crisis. We must act urgently to safeguard and develop our health and food systems, as well as our social safety nets, to slow the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Only integrated efforts will allow us to coordinate investments related to food and improvements in social protection, and then examine their impact.
The growing number of infections in Africa threatens to further increase hunger and malnutrition, and made it clear that our thinking must change
Our task is enormous: the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report and recent research published in The Lancet on the impact of the pandemic on child malnutrition is a tough read.
After decades of progress to reduce all types of food insecurity, the trend is reversing due to insufficient investment to end climate impacts and violent conflicts, among others. And now, the effects of the covid-19 crisis.
Africa has the highest prevalence of undernutrition in the world and may soon surpass Asia in the number of hungry and undernourished people. Among children under five years of age, the economic impact of COVID-19 is expected to increase the incidence of wasting , a consequence of severe weight loss from starvation and diseases associated with acute food insecurity.
This, together with reduced access to health and nutrition services, is expected to result in the additional death of 128,000 children under five years of age worldwide in 2020 (more than half will be in sub-Saharan Africa).
But the data also offers glimpses of hope, pointing to three ways we can reimagine African leadership in nutrition. First, we have an opportunity to transform the economics of health and hunger.
It is estimated that by 2030 the health costs related to food will be 1.3 billion dollars a year (about 1 billion euros). But moving to healthier diets could cut them by as much as 97%, according to the SOFI report.
Second, nutrition must come first in our response to the pandemic. The World Health Organization estimates that investments in this area could save 3.7 million lives worldwide by 2025. Our leaders must then solve the challenge of providing adequate resources for the interventions with the greatest impact.
These include breastfeeding, targeted complementary feeding, micronutrient supplements, and food fortification.
Reduced access to health and nutrition services, and diseases related to acute malnutrition, are expected to kill an additional 128,000 children under the age of five in 2020. More than half in sub-Saharan Africa
Third, a strong pandemic-related component of social protection programs is critical to ensure that Africa does not lag behind other regions. The weaknesses of these continent programs can prove disastrous for the hungry.
Faced with the combination of price rises and disruptions in food systems and supply chains, social assistance must focus on expanding access to affordable and nutritious diets.
The focus of African Leaders for Nutrition remains the same: amplifying the voices of the continent’s leaders to support policy conversations in Africa, including facilitating high-level political participation.
Through our advocate for African Leaders for Nutrition, King Letsie III of Lesotho, we call on the heads of state and governments of the Assembly of the African Union, the continent’s leading political institution, to ensure that food occupies a key role in your response and post-pandemic recovery plan.
At the same time, our support tools, such as the Register of Accountability Continental Accounts for Nutrition (Continental Nutrition Accountability Scorecard), collect evidence real on the progress of African countries in improving services, governance and socioeconomic outcomes .
These leaders must make data-driven decisions to save lives and livelihoods during the pandemic (and beyond). These tools are intended to guide them in the allocation of financial resources and other assistance to achieve the greatest impact.
Above all else, African countries must respond in concert to the challenges they face. That means fighting the pandemic as part of a longer-term strategy to end malnutrition and boost Africa’s collective capacity to solve problems. By uniting and amplifying the voices of African leaders we can change the dance.