As of August 20, 2020, the global number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease stood at more than 22.5 million with slightly less than 800,000 thousand deaths. Albeit, the distribution of cases and deaths is relatively uneven across the globe, with some continents and countries more hit than others. In the midst of all this, concerted efforts are continually being made to evaluate and review treatment protocols, and develop an acceptable vaccine. With increasing knowledge, there is a positive outlook that the disease will eventually be contained.
In view of the resources that have been deployed in the fight to contain – and probably eradicate – the coronavirus disease, many a concerned expert and lay citizen have raised the matter of other public health problems which continue to claim lives year in year out, but have received less defined action plans and resources to stamp them out. Some have suggested a lack of sincerity of purpose while others have noted the general economic malaise. Ranking high among these public health concerns is malnutrition in children. This has been a major scourge in low- and middle-income nations.
The United Nations has the goal number two (2) of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as zero hunger to be achieved by 2030. Goal number 3 is the need to achieve good health and wellbeing. It is not surprising that these two goals come immediately after each other. It underscores the importance of good nutrition to total wellbeing. Recent estimates, according to the United Nations, have it that 690 million people were hungry.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 are attributable to undernutrition. Data released by UNICEF and the World Bank Group shows that 38 per cent of child malnutrition cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria has been said to be the second country with the highest burden of stunted growth in children with about 2 million children suffering from acute malnutrition.
To help address this problem, the Nigerian federal government in 2016 launched the National Home- Grown School Feeding Programme. Though not novel, it is quite laudable. The programme, in its different modifications, had been launched in countries like Chile, Ghana, South Africa, Cape Verde and Mexico before Nigeria leveraged on its existing knowledge. At its launch, the country’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, stated that the programme was part of the National Social Investment Programme (N-SIP), designed to help the poor and vulnerable. Among other things, he stated that the programme was designed to improve child nutrition and health, mentioning that poor nutrition had resulted in worrying health status.
However, recent happenings in the light of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown up quite some questions as to the effectiveness of the programme. Many have praised the intention behind it but question its execution. The programme, which now runs in more than two-thirds of states of the federation, at the inception of it, was to drive some financing from a 500-billion-naira fund allocated to schemes under the National Social Investment Programme, N-SIP. There seems, however, a lack of any harmonised data on the spending so far. Beyond putting in the funds, and signing on to conventions and agreements, are the various stakeholders truly committed to wiping out this scourge? What are the impact-measuring indices, if any? Is the programme really addressing the problem of malnutrition?
Matters came to a high with the programme as the coronavirus disease ravaged the world. The federal government, as part of its response to the corona pandemic rolled out a number of palliative measures to help cushion the effects of the lockdown on its citizens. As part of her duties, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Hajiya Sadiya Farouk, whose ministry is primarily involved in the school feeding, came under heavy criticisms for planning to go ahead with the feeding programme, even when the schools were shut. There were accusations as to the amount spent during the lockdown and the effectiveness of the programme, which included meeting the pupils with quality meals in their respective homes, was bloated and fraudulent.
At the recently held virtual conference on nutrition jointly organised by the Aisha Buhari Foundation, the Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, and the Nigerian Health Watch, the vice president of the country once again brought up the exigency of tackling malnutrition in the country. In his words, ‘The journey to ending malnutrition need not be a long one. We can, with effective collaboration, sincerity of purpose and creativity, reach our goals quickly. Funding will always be key but so also is reducing bureaucracy with common sense approaches and solutions.’ With regards to the unsettling realities of malnutrition he said, ‘With malnutrition, we are confronted with a scourge. It is capable of defeating aspirations and jeopardising the physical and mental abilities of future generations since children are its vulnerable victims.’
As we begin to look into the future, it becomes imperative to have a quick assessment and, as may be necessary, a retooling of this programme vis-à-vis its intended purposes to make certain that it is getting something done, particularly with the issue of malnutrition. Doing this will help ensure that the children of today who are said to be tomorrow’s future, barring any other serious impediments, will actually be there when the future comes.
Adebowale Bello is a trained physiologist, public health writer and keen observer of global trends.