Five-step plan to prevent an impending nutrition famine during COVID-19 in India

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India’s isolation measures in response to COVID-19 are having a far-reaching impact and is among one of the largest initiatives globally to impose strict limitations on its 1.3 billion citizens. People with pre-existing vulnerabilities, marginalized communities, pregnant and lactating women (PLW), daily wage earners, migrant workers, and the elderly have been the hardest hit as the protective measures disrupt the economy.

To ease the effects of the pandemic, the national and state governments have announced extensive stimulus packages and policy measures. The national government on 12th May announced a $265 billion relief package aimed at injecting liquidity into the economy. The first tranche of $ 22.6 billion included several social protection measures such as payment of ex gratia amount to marginalized populations, increased wages for workers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, doubling rations for three months, collateral-free loans to women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs), the inclusion of support to COVID-19 under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and financial assistance to villagers through farmer cooperatives. These aid benefits are aimed to help more than 810 million Indians and are a step in the right direction.

In addition, integrating nutrition in the current policies will be fundamental to improving nutritional status and building immunity of the population, especially high need groups like PLW and children under 5 years of age. The WHO guidance on diet during the COVID-19 pandemic states that “good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back”. India is already battling a high prevalence of malnutrition (Table 1). As India, in unison with the rest of the world, battles an evolving pandemic of unprecedented proportions, policymakers must be vigilant, agile, and innovative to halt our population from sliding into hunger and acute malnutrition due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Table 1:

Source: Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-2018, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Govt. of India.

We propose a five-point plan to put nutrition-sensitive policy measures in place to combat the adverse effects of COVID-19:

1. Increase budget and coverage for essentials

Many state and national governments have gone beyond the entitlement provisions under the National Food Security Act – 2013 to announce a stimulus package, the key elements of which are grain and pulses, and cash transfers to lower-income households. While this is a necessary and commendable step, a much stronger nutrition-sensitive hunger mitigation and food programming scheme is crucial. A basic, nutritious diet, recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission, would cost at least INR 33.69 per day. Accounting for a family of 4, cash transfer of INR 500 per month would only satisfy a family’s requirement for approximately four days a month! Most states’ announcement of transferring an additional INR 1,000 only satisfies their requirement for an additional eight days. India has surplus food grains to weather the current crisis. Universal access and 3x more rations, irrespective of possession of ration cards, will be effective in addressing hunger including the 70 million poor households who lack an identification document.

2. Address malnutrition through dietary diversity, supplementation, and fortification:

Current food supplies through the Targeted Public Distribution Systems (TPDS) are predominantly comprised of grain and pulses. In the current situation where farm supply chains are expected to take at least four months to be restored, essentials such as vegetables, milk, and eggs, could be sourced directly from the farmers and made available in the open markets, supplied through public distribution systems and provided as weekly take home supplies to children and PLW. A few state governments such as the Telangana government have directed Anganwadi workers to provide eggs to mothers and children. Scaling such initiatives to a national level will help improve nutrition outcomes during the pandemic.
The honorable Prime Minister of India, in his address to the nation, ‘Mann ki baat’ on 25th August 2019, announced fortification of rice that is distributed to India’s poor through the public distribution systems, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and mid-day meals. This would be the right time to implement the policy and improve access to fortified products including salt, edible oil, flour, rice, and milk. The aforesaid initiative is critical in the current scenario when nutrient consumption is bound to be erratic due to cash and food shortages.

3. Create awareness about nutrition practices:

Increasing evidence suggests that malnutrition increases susceptibility to infections including COVID-19. We, therefore, need to create awareness about better nutrition practices. The National Nutrition Mission (POSHAN Abhiyaan)’s Jan Andolan movement is a platform to engage in civil society and engage people to be committed to better nutrition. The Jan Andolan initiative can be utilized to implement a social behavior change campaign addressing food safety and feeding practices at the household level. Second, front-line workers can be empowered to halt the rise of malnutrition. They can be trained and equipped with behavior change communication equipment on nutrition care during pandemics. Empowering them with the right information and communication technology (ICT) equipment will enable them to spread information through digital platforms while following social distancing norms.

4. Incentivize farmers and small enterprises to produce nutrition-rich crops and food:

The following initiatives can improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and enterprises while improving access to nutrition. Incentivize smallholder farmers to produce nutrition-rich crops and staple foods and thus improving access to safe and nutritious diets across the value chain. Micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) can be motivated to produce and process nutritious and culturally appropriate foods using millets and legumes such as lentils, chickpea, groundnut, ragi which contain many nutrients and can store for long periods. They can also be prepared by women self-help groups authorized to prepare take-home rations and then the ICDS channel can distribute these foods to PLW and young children.

5. Harness technology for better nutrition:

India has a successful history of using technology to improve socio-economic and public health outcomes. For example, the Arogya Setu app, recently developed by the National Informatics Centre, uses technology to track coronavirus infections, thus providing a valuable tool in the fight against the pandemic. The government can similarly engage entrepreneurs to develop technologies to forecast the trend and pattern of disease burden in future months, rectify supply chain management of key food and nutrition supplies, revitalize already introduced software in public distribution systems to monitor food supplies.
Nutrition is a great equalizer. It can create the right environment to stimulate growth, economic development, and progress of an entire generation, thus propelling India on a path towards excellence. India has demonstrated early successes in managing the pandemic through strict isolation measures, innovative use of technology, and public health services. As we fight a pandemic of epic proportions, accounting for the nutritional needs of the world’s most vulnerable will not only give us the strength and immunity to fight COVID-19 but also save lives and give more babies the healthy start they deserve, irrespective of their socio-economic status.