Rising from Covid-19 induced economic ashes must start with basic nutrition

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Photo by: Omotayo Tajudeen

Five years ago, the global community committed to achieving 17 life-changing sustainable development goals under the aegis of the United Nations (UN).

These goals included ending global hunger, providing better healthcare, and achieving equality for women. Nearly all countries around the world are signatories to these goals, meant to be achieved by 2030.

Many government programmes in South Africa, a signatory to UN Sustainable Development Goals, are aligned to meeting these goals.

The need to achieve progress on a number of these goals is more pressing in South Africa, which is considered an upper-middle-income country.

South Africa is also among the countries with the most unequal societies in the world.

With only 10 years to the finish line, South Africa will need radical changes to stand a chance of meeting some of the critical goals such as universal healthcare, ending poverty and hunger, and equity for women.

Statistics South Africa reports that in 2017 as many as 6,8 million South Africans experienced hunger. While the number has dropped from 13,5 million in 2002, hunger still affects 1,7 million households across the country.

During the Covid-19 induced lockdown, we witnessed a concerted effort by the government and corporate South Africa to provide nutrition to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Many organisations, particularly those in the food production and distribution value chain developed and implemented nutrition programmes with varying degrees of success.

The government, through the National Department of Basic Education, has an in-school nutrition programme that provides meals to millions of learners every day.

It has been reported that, before the lockdown, about 20 percent of households in South Africa had insufficient food. This is a disturbing reality by any measure.

The South African government, like many others around the world, implemented lockdown regulations as a measure to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While the lockdown was necessary to tackle the highly infectious virus, the undesired side-effect was a massive decline in economic activity.

The economy is now expected to see a more than 7 percent contraction in gross domestic product.

Unskilled or semi-skilled workers in the lower-income segment are likely to be affected the most by the lockdown. We have already seen massive job losses across many sectors of the economy.

Covid-19 not only exposed some societal deficiencies, but it also showed the extent of inequality in South Africa.

For many years there have been questions about South Africa’s capacity to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, by delivering high levels of inclusive economic growth.

While I am not qualified to make a pronouncement on the state’s capacity to deliver sustainable development, what is clear is that we need some urgent interventions.

Without a decent economic recovery programme to tackle poverty and hunger, the impact will linger for many years to come.

Studies show that an in-school nutrition programme also has the effect of increasing school attendance and consequently better educational outcomes.

In the long run, education improves one’s ability to take advantage of economic opportunities. It follows, therefore that an in-school nutrition programme automatically achieves results beyond the meal itself.

That is the reason the Tiger Brands Foundation intervention programme continues to help learners in school.

Our intervention achieves multiple goals simultaneously.

Efforts that were underway before the lockdown to prevent hunger among schoolchildren should, therefore, be resuscitated with urgency.

It is within our grasp to end hunger in schools if we put our considerable resources together. Many programmes have already been designed to achieve this goal.

While there is always room for improvement, we believe that it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel.

Those with the will, desire, and resources to make a difference should rather focus on leveraging existing programmes.

Inequality is a threat to long-term social stability.

Sustainable development to us means no child should be left behind in our quest to create an equal society.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are to a large degree interlinked.

Malnourished schoolchildren are susceptible to disease and will also find it difficult to make progress in learning.

Covid-19 may have re-set the clock on many of the gains towards achieving 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, but we believe that to resuscitate the momentum, we should focus on getting the basics right first.

Even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not start with high-tech gadgets, it starts with nutrition.

Eugene Absolom is the Executive Director at Tiger Brands Foundation