Delivering nutrition services during COVID-19: how Nutrition International is working to avoid a looming malnutrition crisis

By Ann Witteveen, Senior Director, Operations

The global COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures taken by countries to slow it down, have had a profound impact on the world. Beyond the obvious and much-talked-about health, food security and economic impacts, it’s clear that the pandemic will also bring about a malnutrition crisis for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Lockdowns, physical distancing requirements, diversion of resources to the COVID-19 medical response and fear of infection have decreased access to nutrition services, putting people who need them most − such as pregnant women and young children − at increased risk of nutritional deficiencies, illness and even death. Furthermore, past emergencies have shown that economic crises lead to higher prices and decreased purchasing power, and mean people can‘t afford to buy the nutrient-dense foods their bodies need to be healthy.

This malnutrition crisis could have a devastating impact on an entire generation, and threaten many key development gains made over the last decades. The importance of evidence-based nutrition actions at every stage of the COVID-19 crisis cannot be overstated – nor can the risks of disrupted access to nutritious food and nutrition services.

Nutrition International is working to find innovative ways to continue to deliver its programs despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, to ensure access to lifesaving nutrition services when they are most needed.

Over the past several weeks, we have been collaborating with local and national governments in the countries where we work, as well as with our partners, to rapidly provide technical leadership and interpret global guidelines in each context, adapt program delivery strategies, leverage functioning platforms and find new ones.

Here are only a few examples of the exceptional work our global team has been doing:

  • In Bangladesh, Nutrition International is conducting virtual daily monitoring and tracking of iodized salt production. This will help the government to control supply and price of salt throughout the country, making sure the population continues to have access to iodized salt to control iodine deficiency.
  • In Asia and Africa, Nutrition International field staff are providing technical and operational support to millers through messaging or video platforms so they can continue to fortify flour and other staples to reduce the prevalence of some of the most common micronutrient deficiencies.
  • In Gujarat, India, Nutrition International is supporting the state government to compile messages on breastfeeding and pregnant and lactating women, child, and adolescent nutrition in the context of the pandemic based on recent global guidelines. These messages will be shared with frontline health workers though mobile technology to build their capacity to address nutrition issues during the crisis.
  • In Ethiopia, Nutrition International is working with the Federal Ministry of Health to support and implement a three-month COVID-19 response plan.
  • In Kenya, Nutrition International initiated a CSO Food and Nutrition security and social protection advisory committee to advise the government response committee and developed a tool to remotely map and coordinate efforts.

Frontline health workers are also stepping up to ensure their communities can receive the nutrition services they need in a safe way. They are hard at work devising innovative protocols to treat patients − utilizing single windows, demarcating socially distant safe spots, practicing and advising handwashing, and even distributing nutrition supplements to patients through relatives visiting the health facilities. Many are also using social media to share messages about COVID-19 prevention.

Nutrition should be an integral part of countries’ response to COVID-19 to ensure that this health crisis does not cause a malnutrition crisis. Protecting the poorest and most vulnerable from the serious health consequences of malnutrition will be important to prevent a ‘crisis within a crisis’ as the pandemic progresses.

As an expert ally to governments in identifying and carrying out highly effective actions at scale, Nutrition International is committed to supporting countries in ensuring proven nutrition interventions can be delivered through this pandemic – and beyond.

Ann Witteveen

Senior Director, Operations

Ann Witteveen, Senior Director, Operations, works with the Nutrition International technical team and field staff to direct a global portfolio of programs in Asia and Africa aimed at securing lifelong and sustainable improvements in health and nutrition for women, adolescent girls and their families. Ann has more than 20 years of expertise in nutrition and food security. Ann has a bachelor’s degree in Applied Chemistry and a Master’s degree in International Development.