COVID-19–Induced Global Food Insecurity: A Hidden Syndemic
Ella Dean, Saline High School, Saline, Michigan, USA
After being declared a pandemic by the WHO in March 2020, COVID-19 became the nucleus of our world. News outlets relentlessly produce daily reminders of the rise in cases and mortality worldwide, littering headlines with the word “death.” Even in the past months, death continues to be a major focus concerning the pandemic:
“Michigan boy almost dies from diabetes after catching COVID-19” (Mason, 2021).
“COVID-19 breaking news: eight deaths, 587 cases in NSW” (Zaczek, 2021).
“COVID-19 UPDATE: West Virginia reaches new record high” (Damron, 2021).
While public health officials have done their best to enact policies that help lower the spread of the disease, these actions have had unintended detrimental impacts — most of which are not featured on the news. For instance, many are unaware of the pandemic’s exacerbation of global food insecurity, a health crisis that continues to grow in magnitude. After remaining unchanged for five years, the prevalence of undernourishment increased by almost two percent in the year 2020, indicating a syndemic: COVID-19 and world hunger (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021).
Food insecurity is defined as the persistent concern about access to enough affordable and nutritious food at all times (Paslakis et al., 2020). In order to be food secure, a properly-functioning food supply chain is necessary. Unfortunately, the health and economic crisis sparked by the pandemic has disrupted the food supply chain, thus impacting the production, distribution, and consumption of food worldwide.
Furthermore, unemployment and working poverty combined with food shortages and increased food prices is a recipe for disaster — especially in underdeveloped nations. Take India, for example. Enforcing one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, India suffered tremendous economic losses. These losses only amplified India’s already growing food insecurity problem. In 2019, India ranked 102 out of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) (Mishra & Rampal, 2021). As a result of the pandemic, significantly more deaths caused by lack of food were reported, exposing an unfortunate sentiment: India’s poor being forced to choose between death by COVID-19 or death by hunger. Alas, the story is the same for several other underdeveloped nations across the world.
Especially among children and adolescents, exposure to food insecurity has dire consequences. Nutrition is foundational to brain development, including cognitive and socioemotional capabilities; thus, unreliable access to enough affordable and nutritious foods hinders children from reaching their full potential — both in quality of life and educational attainment (Chilton et al., 2007). In fact, Figure 1 indicates that food insecurity is correlated with an increase in the percentage of children with parent-reported mental health problems.
Figure 1. Food insecurity is associated with increased mental health problems (Poole-Di Salvo et al., 2015).
Amidst economic crises due to the pandemic, many households are turning to unhealthy eating patterns, such as skipping meals, hoarding food, and overfeeding when food is available. These harmful diets may lead to increased vulnerability to COVID-19. For example, overfeeding can result in obesity, which was associated with an approximately threefold increased risk of having severe COVID-19 in a study of 150 COVID-19 patients (Gao et al., 2020). As shown in Figure 2A, a greater proportion of obese patients had severe COVID-19 compared with non-obese patients.
Figure 2. Obesity increases risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms (Gao et al., 2020).
Moreover, COVID-19 intensified an already growing food insecurity problem. Hence, learning from countries that have historically been successful in food security is key to improving hunger worldwide. Finland, for example, has taken several measures to attain better food security, such as promoting agricultural research, supporting farmers’ organizations, and providing universal, free school lunches (Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, n.d.).
Countries and individuals must think outside of the box to combat the problem. Rather than general assistance, targeted assistance might be more effective in fighting food insecurity. Learning from Finland, countries should consider implementing a universal school meal system that not only provides students with a free and nutritionally balanced meal, but also incorporates food education as a major part of the school curriculum (Walton & Hawkes, 2020).
Nonetheless, it is clear that food insecurity is a problem that must be addressed at the international level. Affecting 697 million people worldwide, world hunger continues to impact our daily lives, and we must take action (Roser & Ritchie, 2019). Although the problem cannot be solved by one person alone, individual efforts matter; individuals can make an effort to lower their food waste and support local food banks and hunger relief organizations. By consolidating support, we can move one step closer to eliminating hunger worldwide.
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