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Marking one year of the COVID-19 pandemic: Around the world, vulnerable communities are dealing with increased hunger and poverty as a result of the pandemic and its impacts

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By:Meril Cullinan,
Senior Communications Officer,
Action Against Hunger

It’s been a year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Around the world, more than 2.6 million people have died from the virus, and, together, we mourn these losses.

Beyond case numbers, billions of lives have changed in the last year – and, sadly, millions more people have been driven into hunger and poverty. Even in areas where the virus has been less virulent, the pandemic’s impact on the global economy has hit the poorest people hard. In Juba, South Sudan, for example, our staff and volunteers hear shouts on the streets: "We don't care about corona, we care about hunger!"

In many of the communities where we work, COVID-19 compounds issues families already face, including conflict, drought, and flooding. The ripple effects of the pandemic, from job losses and movement restrictions to rising food prices and declining local economies, have pushed many to the brink.

At Action Against Hunger, we continue to do our part to prevent the spread of the virus – and to help vulnerable families who are suffering as a result of the pandemic.

IMPROVING ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER, SAFE SANITATION & GOOD HYGIENE

In health facilities, on city streets, and throughout the communities we serve, Action Against Hunger teams have installed new hand-washing stations, improved access to clean water, and raised awareness about good hygiene practices to help keep families safe from the spread of disease – not just COVID-19, but other illnesses that can lead to malnutrition in children. Our work continues!

RAISING AWARENESS IN COMMUNITIES

Community awareness and education are among the most powerful tools we have to prevent the spread of the virus – and volunteers like Tondrua in Juba, South Sudan, are at the heart of this vital work. Around the world, our teams are helping keep communities healthy by spreading the word about prevention measures, maintaining hand-washing stations, distributing supplies, and more.

“My proudest accomplishment is that the communities are practicing the preventive measures and they are paying attention to my message,” says Tondrua. “I have seen how important awareness is to educate and protect people, so after COVID-19, I would like to study more about disaster management and risk awareness. If I learn more, then the next time, I will be more prepared to help."

STRENGTHENING HEALTH SYSTEMS

Few health systems in the world were prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why Action Against Hunger stepped up as other organizations retreated – we helped provide badly-needed supplies and support to frontline health workers and teamed up with Ministries of Health to coordinate local responses to the pandemic.

In Somalia, for example, Action Against Hunger leads a coalition of partners– to support the country’s health authorities, deliver primary and secondary healthcare services, and strengthen the health system in Mogadishu and surrounding areas.

The project works within Maternal and Child Health Centers and Nutrition Stabilization Centers by providing immunizations, medical services, and nutrition treatment for severely malnourished children and by training, coordinating, and providing incentives to healthcare staff. When COVID-19 hit, we ramped up our support even further to get quarantine facilities and treatment hospitals up and running.

KEEPING OUR STAFF SAFE & OUR LIFESAVING PROGRAMS GOING STRONG

“It’s been three or four months that my daughter has been ill, but we haven’t visited a big city. We were not going anywhere out of fear of corona. We were told not to be scared and to bring our child here for treatment,” says Mala, mother of two-year-old Suhaniya, who was admitted and treated for malnutrition in one of the hospitals Action Against Hunger supports in Pakistan.

Mala’s fears of contracting COVID-19 while visiting a health center or crowded area are understandable and quite common. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, many people didn’t seek basic health services because they feared the disease. Many people died -- not only from Ebola, but from other health issues. People stopped bringing themselves and their children into clinics, and routine services, such as vaccine programs, were paused. These “indirect mortalities” resulted in as many deaths as Ebola itself.

At Action Against Hunger, we took these lessons to heart, establishing precautionary measures in all of our health and nutrition centers to help patients like Suhaniya and her mother feel safe seeking care for malnutrition and other illnesses. This includes providing PPE to health center staff, installing new handwashing stations, working longer hours and more days to reduce crowding, putting in social distancing measures in waiting areas, and more.

EMPOWERING PARENTS TO FIGHT MALNUTRITION

Hunger doesn't stop for a pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 has driven millions more families into food insecurity. However, the traditional ways of diagnosing malnutrition - where a health worker measures a child's weight, height, and upper arm circumference - are harder to do safely with social distancing and travel restrictions in place.

The solution is an approach we at Action Against Hunger have been using for many years. With a simple measuring band and the right training, we can empower mothers and fathers to check their child's nutrition status, at home, without a health worker present. When the parent detects malnutrition, or when the measuring band reads yellow or red, they know they have to take their child to a health center for treatment. Diagnosing children earlier reduces the severity of malnutrition and improves treatment outcomes.

We have continued to expand these parent-focused programs so that, even during a pandemic, malnourished children receive the care they need.

CREATING NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR FAMILIES FACING HUNGER

Globally, even before the pandemic, hunger was on the rise. Now, the pandemic is making hunger even worse:

Action Against Hunger is helping families around the world deal with hunger – even as conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 threaten to drive more people into vulnerability. We are providing cash transfers to help families buy what they need, supplying seeds and tools to farmers, training people in new growing techniques and new ways to earn incomes, and helping mothers save and invest their money to start businesses.

Now that COVID-19 vaccinations have begun around the world, life will return to normal for some. However, vaccine rollout remains uneven globally, and the poorest countries are last on the distribution list. And, for communities who already faced hunger and poverty before the pandemic, the promise of a return to “normal” provides little hope for a brighter future. Together, we must redouble our commitments to building a better world for all communities – to creating a world free from hunger, for everyone, for good.