Thimphu, 7 May 2020: At this time of unprecedented crisis due to COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) in Bhutan recognizes that this crisis will have lasting effects on people and their nutrition, and that the most vulnerable in the society need special attention so that “no one is left behind”.
Concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and nutrition in Bhutan, the UN is supporting the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) through various activities:
Children and nutrition
Food supplementation is necessary where diets do not provide enough nutrition. Although 98% of households in Bhutan are food secure, 88% of children aged between 6 to 23 months do not have a minimum acceptable diet. This indicates that food security is not enough for achieving nutritional status. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the nationwide scaling up of micronutrient supplementation for children aged between 6 to 23 months. The UN is helping the RGoB to prepare for accelerated scale-up of micronutrient supplementation once mass training of health workers can commence
Children are currently out of school and this raises concerns over both continuity of education and nutrition. School meals help children meet their daily nutritional requirements. The absence of adequate nutritious food in the diets of school age children could adversely affect their growth, cognitive development and immunity. The UN applies an integrated approach for nutrition and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) to support out of school children. The nutrition and WASH package provided includes a take-home school feeding ration; nutrition and hygiene messages and; soaps.
The most vulnerable amongst children need special attention and we will “Leave No One Behind”. During any period when schools need to remain closed, the UN supports the RGoB in establishing a system to provide nutritious food to students identified by the government as the most vulnerable children. The proposed food basket will consist of rice and oil fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, chickpeas, and pulses, that will be distributed while implementing appropriate infection prevention control measures.
Making nutritious food available
The demand for local vegetables is high in the country due to closure of trade routes across the border. The UN supports and implements the Farm to Schools (F2S) project which links farmer groups producing fresh vegetables for supply to local schools and institutions. Under the COVID-19 situation, where schools have remained closed, the farmer groups have supplied vegetables to towns and hotels; some farmer groups have donated fresh vegetables to quarantine facilities to show their solidarity in the country’s fight against COVID-19.
The UN will also assist the local farming communities in enhancing agriculture production, linking the farm produce to local or national markets, improving food and nutrition status of students and enhancing cash income of farming communities and generating gainful employment. The farm support is achieved through demand-driven, market led production and optimum fallow-land use with focus on production of nutritious crops, incorporation of smart agriculture technologies and viable farmer business models.
The UN has supported the RGoB’s efforts towards prepositioning of food under the National Food Security Reserve (NFSR). Two portable storage facilities have been donated to augment the current storage capacity by additional 1000 MT and funds have been disbursed for the procurement of storage equipment. The UN is also providing technical assistance on food safety and quality matters to minimize food losses and preserve inherent nutritional quality of the 20,000 MT food, which should suffice to meet the requirements of 50% of the population for about 6 months.
Building climate-resilient farms
The consequential implication of climate change on agriculture sector is likely to compound COVID situation, particularly in rural areas, since the source of nutrition is what farmers grow in their backyard. Through the existing portfolio (s) of UN – RGOB climate change adaptation projects funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), investments are beefed up in the areas of irrigation to assure access to water to grow crops including nutrition gardens; climate-smart crop technologies and resilient farmers roads to ensure movement of foods along the value chains and to the consumers.
Behavioral change advocacy
Public information and messaging for behavioral change are important tools to ensure nutrition. The UN supports the RGoB in disseminating public information to the people in Bhutan. This information is specifically targeting those in rural Bhutan to help them to stay and eat healthy during the pandemic. These messages are tailored for children and their household to encourage consumption of local and nutritious food that include more of fruits and vegetables and less of traditional “rich in rice with potatoes” meals. Community outreach strategies will emphasize the role of nutrition especially micronutrients in strengthening one’s immunity in addition to the use of social and mainstream media to disseminate these critical information
To ensure that children of 6 to 23 months have a minimum acceptable diet, the UN is also sharing information on safety and requirements of breastfeeding by supporting the Ministry of Health to disseminate messages on safety and requirements of breast feeding, Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) and quality nutrition through mass media and social media.
Food supply chains need to keep moving with clear ideas on the demand – total demand and the seasonal variations. Therefore, the UN supports the RGoB in educating and creating awareness on nutrition, proper cooking, cleanliness by disseminating materials on food plates, food pyramid and a video on the importance of local production of vegetables, linking nutrition, health and food.
The RGoB developed a strategy on continuity of nutrition interventions through the health system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN supported the government in developing this strategy and is also developing guidance documents on food safety management at warehouse level, during transportation and distribution, and has provided funds for the purchase of storage equipment to ensure food safety and minimize losses.
Nutrition has been a development priority for the UN. One of the dire impacts, that is of great concern, is that the poorest and most vulnerable people of the society are being threatened by food insecurity let alone having the access to nutritious food. The UN will continue to support the RGoB to meet immediate needs through emergency responses, and plan for longer-term solutions to support recovery and build resilience.
“Good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in present times like these, when the immune system might need to fight back. The most impacted would be the poorest and the most vulnerable segments of the society. It is critical that people have access to enough food and nutrition. All of us must act. That is why the UN is working together to meet the immediate needs through emergency responses, and plan for longer-term solutions to support recovery and build resilience.”- Gerald Daly, Resident Coordinator, UN Bhutan
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s nutrition security could be devastating as children’s food choices become increasingly limited. To prevent a major crisis, and to protect children from the worst impacts of COVID-19, we must act now to continue essential nutrition services.”- Dr. Will Parks, Representative, UNICEF
“The Royal Government has taken a proactive approach to address the emergency, which is putting increased pressure on the country’s health system as well as food and nutrition security. We are pleased to extend our support at this critical time to protect the people, especially the most vulnerable, against potential shocks such as decreased access to affordable and nutritious food amidst the growing unemployment rate and lost/reduced wages.” - Svante Helms, Head of Office, WFP
"Nutrition is a critical aspect in the outcome of pregnancies, in the ability of the mother to carry, deliver and breastfeed a healthy newborn. It is well known that a malnourished mother tends to give birth to low-weight and/or premature babies, putting her life in danger and reducing the child survival of the newborn and future learning outcomes of the child. We strongly advocate for and support nutrition initiatives and programmes that pay special attention to adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers, newborns and children in general." - Argentina Matavel Piccin, Country Director, UNFPA
“While it is a devastating health, and socio-economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic presents opportunities in Bhutan to transform its systems of food production, distribution and overall quality – in terms of safety, self-sufficiency, diversification of diets and nutrition – for the medium to long-term. Such response and recovery efforts be resilient to changing climate and build food security for the most vulnerable members of the society. While addressing the immediate needs of nutrition services, this is the time to start working on the sustainable future. “Azusa* Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP.*
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