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Malnourished South Africans may be hit hardest by third wave, warns Operation Hunger

07 April 2021 - 11:05 By suthentira govender
South Africans with poor food insecurity and weaker immune systems will be the worst affected if a third wave of Covid-19 infections hits the country. Stock photo.
South Africans with poor food insecurity and weaker immune systems will be the worst affected if a third wave of Covid-19 infections hits the country. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/nito500

Millions of malnourished South Africans may suffer severe illness if a third wave of Covid-19 infections hits SA because of their weaker immune systems.

This is according to Operation Hunger, which on World Health Day observed on Wednesday voiced its concern about SA’s nutritional resilience.

Sandy Bukula, interim CEO of Operation Hunger, told TimesLIVE: “While we are awaiting the outcome of the projected figures from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification for January-March 2021, about 11.8 million people, or 20% of the population, are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity.

“Of these, approximately two million (4%) are expected to be in emergency and 9.6 million (16%) are already in crisis.”

Bukula said the statistics clearly indicated a need for urgent action to reduce food gaps.

“The need for more equitable, resilient and sustainable food and health systems has never been more urgent as a means to address food insecurity in SA, especially during the pandemic.

“Covid-19 does not treat us equally. Undernourished people have weaker immune systems  and may be at greater risk of severe illness due to the virus.

“At the same time, poor metabolic health, including obesity and diabetes, is strongly linked to worse Covid-19 outcomes, including risk of hospitalisation and death.

“Good nutrition is an essential part of an individual’s defence against Covid-19. Nutritional resilience is a key element of a society’s readiness to combat the threat of the third wave.”

Bukula said while everyone deserved access to healthy, affordable food and quality nutrition, this was hindered by deeper inequities that arose from unjust systems and processes that structure daily living conditions.

She said a key reason millions of people suffer from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition was because they cannot access or afford the cost of healthy diets.

There was a dire need to address inequities in food systems, from production to consumption, she said.

“Existing agriculture systems are largely focused on an overabundance of staple grains like rice, wheat and maize rather than producing a broader range of more diverse and healthier foods, like fruits, nuts and vegetables.

“We must address nutrition inequities in health systems. Malnutrition in all its forms has become the leading cause of ill health and death, and the rapid rise of diet-related non-communicable diseases is putting an intolerable strain on health systems.

“Most people cannot access nor afford quality nutrition for prevention or treatment. Nutrition actions represent only a tiny portion of national health budgets, although they can be highly cost-effective and can reduce health-care spending in the long term.”