Covid pandemic disruptions linked to 14 per cent increase in underweight children in India: Study

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New Delhi: The disruption of India’s food systems during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with a steep rise in malnutrition among children as the lockdown impacted their nutritional status, according to a study.

Researchers from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) in New Delhi analysed pre- and post-pandemic survey data on children’s health and nutrition.

The study, published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, found that the number of children deemed underweight increased by 14 per cent as a result of disruptions caused by the pandemic. These included supply chain disruptions, price inflation, loss of work and the interruption of government food safety net programme.

Previous TCI research on the impact of COVID-19 has found that supply chain disruptions caused food prices to increase and that women’s dietary diversity worsened during the pandemic.

“Researchers long suspected that pandemic-related disruptions to India’s food systems reduced access to healthy, nutritious diets, especially for marginalised populations dependent on government programmes,” said Professor Prabhu Pingali, director of TCI.

“Our study confirms these suspicions and shows the real damage done to children’s nutrition and development,” Pingali said in a statement.

The team, including TCI researcher Payal Seth, examined survey data collected from 511 households in Bihar and Odisha in June 2017 and July 2021.

The researchers found that the percentage of underweight children increased from 31 per cent in 2017 to 45 per cent in 2021, with children under the age of 2 disproportionately impacted. Most of the shift occurred in children who already had a low weight for their age in 2017, they said.

The study shows a number of factors were behind a child’s weight-for-age worsening. These included reduced access to food safety net programmes like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the Partnerships and Opportunities to Strengthen and Harmonize Actions for Nutrition (POSHAN) initiative or Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

Some of the children surveyed experienced an improvement in weight during the pandemic. Those children had higher access to ICDS and cultivated pulses and vegetables in 2021 than they did in 2017, the researchers said.

They recommend that policymakers encourage the diversification of agriculture to ensure access to diverse, nutritious foods. Household production diversity – the number of crops a farming household grows – was a significant predictor of weight-for-age in the TCI study, as it improves resilience to market disruptions, according ro the researchers.

They also recommend that policymakers work to minimise any potential disruptions to ICDS, POSHAN and other programmes that ensure supplementary nutrition for vulnerable groups.

“To directly address the reduction of access to these programmes during pandemics and other crises, states should explore switching to direct cash transfers when the physical delivery of services is difficult,” Seth said.

The researchers recommended that the restoration of basic maternal and child-care services be prioritized in the future. Children younger than 2 were disproportionately impacted and researchers found that a mother’s body mass index (BMI) was associated with improved child weight during the pandemic.

“By addressing the disruptions that most impacted children’s nutrition and building household resilience through diversified farming policymakers can minimise harm to children’s health and development during future adverse events,” Seth added.

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