ISLAMABAD: The economic impact of Covid-19 on the world’s most populous region, Asia and the Pacific, is undermining efforts to improve diets and nutrition of nearly two billion people, who were unable to afford healthy diets even prior to the pandemic, says a report published by four specialised agencies of the United Nations.

The report, titled “Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2020: Maternal and Child Diets at the Heart of Improving Nutrition”, was jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Unicef, World Food Programme (WFP) and WHO on Wednesday.

The report found that 1.9bn people were unable to afford healthy diets before the Covid-19 outbreak and the pandemic had further worsened the situation.

Due to high prices of fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for the poor people in Asia and the Pacific to take healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensuring food security and nutrition for all, particularly for mothers and children.

Food prices and available incomes govern household decisions on food and dietary intake, but the Covid-19 pandemic and lack of decent work opportunities in several parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, have led to worsening inequality as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious food to survive in this uncertain situation.

The report says that more than 350 million people in the Asia and the Pacific region were undernourished in 2019, or roughly half of the global total. Across the region an estimated 74.5m children under five years were stunted and 31.5m suffered from wasting. The majority of these children live in South Asia with nearly 56m stunted and more than 25m wasted.

Poor diets and inadequate nutritional intake are an ongoing problem. The cost of healthy diets is significantly higher than that of diets that provide sufficient calories but lack in nutritional value, showing significant gaps in the food system to deliver nutritious options to all at an affordable price. These costs are even greater for women and children, given their added nutritional needs.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2021

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