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How COVID-19 Pandemic Contributes to Protein Deficiency, Malnutrition

The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively worsened the problem of protein deficiency and malnutrition in Nigeria, Africa and the global community.

Dr. Adepeju Adeniran, a clinical and public health physician, who delivered a paper on ‘Protein Deficiency in a Pandemic: Guide for Protein Nutrition Policy’ at the Protein Deficiency Webinar Series 4 said COVID-19 disruptions occurred across the major sectors such as agriculture, politics and policy, economic and financial sector- no movement, no trade, no production; education and the judiciary etc.

He said the pandemic reversed gains made in the case of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer and others resulting in needless deaths while serious concerns were raised that a still developing health systems in many places in Africa might not be able to control and contain the overwhelming strain, mortality and costs associated with the disease.

Linking COVID-19’s impact to Malnutrition Index, Adeniran was emphatic that anything that affects food production, transport and logistics in terms of agricultural output will eventually affect malnutrition. This would be in addition to domestic food security, domestic spending/household finances.

“Malnutrition will have ‘short-term’ or acute effects and ‘long-term’ or chronic effects. In the short term; energy foods like carbohydrates will be focused on. The hidden truth is that protein sources will show their effects slightly later, but just as impactful.”

He listed some of the negative impact of the pandemic on nutrition to include:

  • House-hold vulnerability: children, female adults of reproductive age, pregnant and lactating women, elderly and convalescent are especially vulnerable in a pandemic
  • Food supply chain was severely threatened: farmers, transporters and food sellers were restricted in movements
  • Availability of food groups dropped
  • Prices of food went up, household earning went down.
  • Scarcity of food by displacement occurred from the rural (producers) to the urban (consumers)
  • No ability of the urban areas to produce their own food, leading to a displacement scarcity
  • Harvests were lost as food rotted at production sites
  • Food supply is not perfectly elastic. Month-long disruptions in terms of the lockdown created effects that were not easy to reverse except by well-developed processing and storage systems uniquely designed for such purpose

Adeniran said the short-term effect on malnutrition will manifest in scarcity of energy-giving food being out of reach of the whole household while in the long-term, growth and development foods will also elude vulnerable households resulting in increased infections and  if prolonged, will show effects in stunting and body development.

In terms of protein deficiency, the physician said that both animal and plant sources of protein are important dietary components of food to checkmate malnutrition.

Adeniran queried the country’s Proteins Policy in the pre, during and coming post-COVID-19 era thus:

  • What was the state of Nigeria’s Protein Deficiency problem before the COVID pandemic? (Source: The Protein Deficiency Report, Nigeria DHS 2018)
  • What was the ability of the government to safeguard protein nutrition during the pandemic: prioritise protein food supply; include protein foods in household palliatives?

Gazing into the post-COVID-19 future, he posed two fundamental questions to the government and policymakers:

  • What are the essential lessons we have learnt about how to prioritise proteins: evaluation studies of the malnutrition index post-pandemic, house-hold education, subsistence farming, urban farming?
  • Are we better equipped to respond to such a pandemic in the future: plant protein storage and processing, subsidising production and transport etc?
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