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17 September 2020 | Story Prof Corina Walsh | Photo Sonia du Toit (Kaleidoscope Studios)
Prof Corinna Walsh is from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and an NRF C-rated researcher at the University of the Free State.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the challenges of food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition that existed prior to the outbreak, but which are now affecting more individuals and households. During June 2020, three organisations – the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA), the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), and Dietetics-Nutrition is a Profession (DIP) – joined forces to call on the government to address malnutrition in all its forms. Prof Corinna Walsh from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of the Free State (UFS) is the President of the Nutrition Society of South Africa, which aims to advance the scientific study of nutrition to promote appropriate strategies for the improvement of nutrition well-being. 

The call confirms that good nutrition is an essential part of an individual’s defence against disease and explains that malnutrition, in the forms of both over- and undernutrition, is closely related to an increased risk of illness and death, which has a considerable economic and societal impact. The Coronavirus pandemic has emphasised the importance of food security and nutritional well-being for all South Africans and has exposed the vulnerability and weaknesses of our food systems. 

How big is the problem of malnutrition in South Africa and what impact has the Coronavirus had on this situation?

The call highlights that undernutrition co-exists with the rising incidence of overweight and obesity (frequently in the same household) and resultant non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as type 2 diabetes mellitus and hypertension. In South Africa, more than a quarter of the female adult population is overweight and more than a third is obese; it is estimated that 269 000 NCD-related deaths occur in the country annually. Obesity and NCDs are regarded as major risk factors for COVID-19 hospital admissions and complications. Over the past 20 years, the prevalence of chronic undernutrition in children has not improved, with 27% of children under the age of five being chronically undernourished. Chronic undernutrition in children manifests as impaired growth, referred to as stunting. By the age of two, this impaired growth and deficits in development become more difficult to reverse, resulting in intellectual impairment that compromises children’s school performance and employment prospects. Chronic undernutrition in children furthermore increases their future risk of obesity and non-communicable chronic diseases in adolescence and adulthood.

Although the nutrition situation in the country had been of concern prior to the pandemic, the acute nature and vast extent of the lockdown brought the plight of individuals and communities to the forefront. In addition to hunger and food insecurity and the resultant undernutrition, the pandemic also placed a focus on non-communicable chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. These comorbidities, mostly related to overnutrition, are seen to be associated with a more severe form of COVID-19 infection, as well as an increased risk of hospitalisation and death.

 With South Africa’s current economic challenges and the rise of unemployment, is the situation of malnutrition and food insecurity bound to worsen?

Food, water, sanitation, and social security are under severe pressure due to the pandemic. All of these factors are directly related to an increased risk of malnutrition. Further underlying causes of malnutrition include poverty, unemployment, and inequality, which require interventions over the medium and long term. 

The initial hard lockdown had an immediate and acute impact on households and communities in many ways. With regard to food and nutrition, these include interrupted access to food due to restrictions on travelling and informal trading; discontinuation of food and nutrition social programmes such as the National School Nutrition Programme and feeding at early childhood development programmes; increases in food prices and food expenditure; and reduced or lost income.

The pandemic came at a time when global food security and food systems were already under strain due to natural disasters, climate change and other challenges, exacerbating the need to transform food systems to be sustainable and resilient. 

What interventions are suggested to address the problem of malnutrition?

Food relief and social relief interventions, such as food parcels and social grants, could address the more immediate needs, but broader actions are required to address the underlying causes of malnutrition. 

An important first step in the fight against malnutrition will be to recognise the severity of the situation and the need for coordinated strategic efforts to address the underlying factors that contribute to malnutrition, such as insufficient access to food, affordability of fresh foods, poor health services, and a lack of safe water and sanitation. Food security and nutrition should therefore be addressed collectively with interventions aimed at tackling these factors. It will require concerted efforts from the government, the private sector and civil society to address the immediate, underlying, and structural causes of undernutrition. In view of this, the call proposes that interventions include the following:
-           Prioritise nutrition on policy agendas related to health and social security, including a regulatory framework to support access to healthy and affordable foods. Consideration can be given to a basket of subsidised healthy foods and greater regulation of prices of basic foodstuffs.
-           Provide strategic direction and ensure coordinated and aligned programming to address food and nutrition security in collaboration with other sectors, including civil society organisations. Interventions to ensure optimal nutrition should extend beyond the health-care system and should draw on complementary sectors such as agriculture, social protection, early childhood development, education, water, and sanitation.
-           Coordinate an adequate and targeted food and social relief approach, prioritising the most vulnerable and needy for short-term mitigation. Food relief should be standardised and tailored to the nutritional needs of targeted beneficiaries, especially children. 
-           Progress towards universal health coverage to ensure access to quality, essential health care. Focus on delivery of preventive nutrition services as part of the transformation and strengthening of the health system, integrating nutrition into universal health coverage as an indispensable prerequisite for longer-term benefit.
-           Prioritise the challenges faced by specific populations, including the elderly, women (especially women of childbearing age), children, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (most notably HIV/AIDS, TB, and NCDs), drawing on local structures to identify those most in need. 
-           Implement well-funded coordinated strategies to actively address the main drivers of malnutrition, paying attention to food, nutrition, and health, backed by responsive social protection mechanisms.
-           Improve access to quality nutrition care through investment in human resources to increase the number of qualified nutrition professionals, as well as education opportunities for other cadres of workers who provide nutrition services in primary care settings. Each point of contact with the health system should be recognised as an opportunity to direct caregivers to nutrition care and support services, with efficient referral pathways between sectors.
-           Promote nutrition education of the public through targeted and relevant nutrition messaging and communication campaigns.

Opinion article by Prof Corinna Walsh of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and an NRF C-rated researcher, University of the Free State.

 

News Archive

UFS presents first Beyers Naudé Memorial lecture
2010-09-16

At the Beyers Naudé   Memorial lecture were, from the left: Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS; Rev. Cedric Mayson; and Mr Kgotso Schoeman, Chief Executive Officer of Kagiso Trust.
Photo: Dries Myburg

The seventh Beyers Naudé Memorial lecture was presented for the first time at the University of the Free State (UFS) this week. This lecture that is presented at a different university each year took place on the Main Campus of the UFS in Bloemfontein this year. Rev. Cedrick Mayson presented the lecture with under the theme: Crafting a legacy.

According to Rev. Mayson more deeply rooted forms of suppression came forward after the democratic elections in 1994. Liberation from apartheid was, according to Mason, very superficial. The poor were still severely suppressed at economic, political, cultural, religious and environmental level. “We have to apply Beyers Naudé’s legacy of liberation in these areas,” Rev. Mayson declared.

“The system according to which the rich become wealthier and the poor become poorer must be replaced by a system where everybody can have enough. This is only possible with the insight of the oppressed.

“The government and the opposition are dominated by people who seek advantage for their own gain. Regardless of democratic slogans and some enlightened individuals’ rules against corruption and violence, we lack the political will to engage in the transformation of the whole world for the good of all earthlings,” said Rev. Mayson.

According to him, consumer culture has become a fine-tuned instrument for keeping people incomplete, shallow and dehumanised.

“Religions are self-centred. Leaders from most of the religious groupings criticised apartheid but they never joined the struggle to assist in demolishing apartheid. It appears as if religious institutions are not able to address the causes of poverty because they themselves are too rich and too powerful,” said Rev. Mayson.

He ended with the following words: “What we need is a leap of faith. Beyers knew that. The world is waiting for people to claim their legacy and to accomplish a post-religious secular spirituality of ubuntu.”

Rev. Mayson is a former Head of Religious Affairs of the ANC. He had also been a former staff member of the Christian Institute before it was banned. Furthermore, he was the Editor of Pro Veritate. Before he retired, he had also been involved in the South African Council of Churches and the World Conference for Peace.

The memorial lecture, a collaborative effort of the UFS and Kagiso Trust, endeavours to involve South Africans in dialogue about issues that affect our nation. This year the lecture was presented at the UFS for the first time and it will take place on the Qwaqwa Campus of the UFS next year.

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt@ufs.ac.za  
16 September 2010
 

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