Canada can lead way globally in addressing malnutrition

By Joel C. Spicer, President and CEO of Nutrition International

This article was first published in The Hill Times on June 24, 2020.

Last week, Canada lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat. Like many, I was disappointed, but not outraged. Norway and Ireland are allies that have consistently walked the talk globally, and they ran a strong race. While this may seem like a missed opportunity for Canada, the real opportunity for leadership is right in front of us.

During the campaign, Canada positioned itself to play a leading role in the global COVID-19 response, recognizing that in today’s interconnected global economy, no country can “recover” in isolation. Additional waves of infection around the world pose a serious threat not only to the health of Canadians but also to efforts to get our economy off life-support and back on track. Disruption of supply chains, trade and global tourism will continue to exact a steep toll until the virus is defeated everywhere. To prevent more catastrophic short-, medium-, and long-term losses we must act now.

A robust global response is the only path to limiting the impacts of the disease, both at home and around the world—and this response must make addressing the looming malnutrition crisis a priority.

The essential role of nutrition as part of the COVID-19 response cannot be overstated.

Nutrition plays a foundational role in building and strengthening immune systems. Yet just when the world needs resilience to disease the most, COVID-19 has unleashed a malnutrition crisis, as a result of overwhelmed health systems, fear of COVID transmission when seeking health services, reduced purchasing power for nutritious food, and broken supply chains. With more than two billion malnourished people around the world before COVID-19 struck, if left unaddressed, malnutrition will limit global recovery.

Without immediate action to support basic health and nutrition services up to 1.2 million additional children and nearly 60,000 mothers could die from preventable causes in the next six months alone. Rising malnutrition will also lead to long-term, devastating impacts on vulnerable populations by further weakening immune systems and resistance to disease, undermining cognitive development, and increasing stunting and wasting in children. The impacts of this growing crisis-within-a-crisis, if left unchecked, could compromise millions of lives and unwind hard-won development gains achieved over the past decade.

Canada is a leading middle power. We can’t lead everywhere. Instead, we must choose a set of strategic, high-impact areas of strength and focus on moving those issues forward by walking the talk, rallying our allies and staying the course. As we chart a course for Canadian global leadership in the coming years, nutrition remains a stronghold of Canadian achievement, leadership, and global capability.

Across the globe, and here at home, resources are tight. Every dollar spent overseas should produce measurable results, while laying the foundation for a reduced reliance on aid. Nutrition represents one of the greatest returns on investment in both the short and longer term, saving lives and building resilience and immunity to disease. It is an area where Canada has the credibility to act and rally others to co-invest, creating a ripple effect of impact.

If Canada wants to play a global leadership role, our government can and must make nutrition a key pillar of its foreign policy efforts. Our global battle line against the next pandemic is only as strong as its weakest section, and our shared humanity is only as real as our actions in support of its most vulnerable members. Canada has already taken critical strides forward in addressing the crisis; now is the time for vital financial and diplomatic leadership to stem the tide of preventable death, and ensure that the new post-COVID world is one in which all people are truly able to survive and thrive.

The presence or absence of a UN Security Council seat does not determine Canadian values; they are determined by the actions we take, the reasons for those actions, and getting the job done. Canada’s moral compass is most accurate when properly calibrated by compassion, justice, and a determination to level the playing field for the underdog. We care about our communities, our country and the world around us. Levelling up Canada’s engagement in support of people hit hard by COVID-19 around the world is not only in our own interests, from a health and economic security point of view, but it’s also the right thing to do, because it is a statement about who we are as Canadians.

Spicer Joel headshot

Joel Spicer

President and CEO

Joel Spicer, President and CEO, oversees Nutrition International as an established leader in global health, an innovator, visionary, and a Canadian with significant experience in international development that cuts across borders, sectors and agencies. He has an MPH in International Health (Health Policy and Management), and an M.Sc. in Development Studies. Joel joined Nutrition International in 2014. In September 2016, he received the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Emerging Public Health Professional Award.

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