We are losing, every single day of every single year, nearly 15,000 children under the age of 5
by Nicholas Freeland
COVID-19 is dangerous. But it is nowhere near as dangerous as having No Food to Eat (NOFUD-28). In the five months since the COVID-19 outbreak started, we have watched the number of worldwide deaths caused by it rise inexorably past 200,000, representing a tragic loss to the families and friends of those afflicted.
But NOFUD-28 is the root cause of the death of more than 200,000 children under the age of 5 years every single fortnight (in other words, NOFUD-28 causes double the total number of COVID-19 deaths to date, every month of every year), most of them from easily preventable causes. Yet the global reaction to these two crises is observably, and shamefully, different.
First, the arrival of COVID-19 has sparked extraordinary measures in developed countries:
Schools are closed – yet almost none of the under-5s who die each year will even have visited a school, let alone received any education from one (and many of their parents, especially their mothers, will not have done either).
International travel is effectively banned – yet most of those who die from NOFUD-28 will not have ventured beyond the boundaries of their village, or perhaps, if they have been very fortunate, the nearest health post.
Employees are being asked to work remotely from home – yet most of those whose children die young have no work at all, or have only work that is seasonal, poorly-paid, irregular, exploitative or remote (but a different kind of remote!).
Scientists are working round the clock to find a cure to COVID-19 – yet most of the NOFUD-28 deaths are caused by easily curable diseases: a third of them from simple pneumonia or diarrhoea; and many of the rest from malaria, polio, even the plague, diseases which no longer even exist in high-income countries.
Hospitals with intensive care units and over 1,000 beds are being built, equipped and staffed in the space of 10 days – imagine how welcome one or two of those would be in countries which currently have less than 1 hospital bed per 1,000 citizens!
Information systems are in overdrive – we are now kept informed on an hourly basis about how many cases and how many deaths there have been from COVID-19.
People can quote these statistics from countries that they would be hard pushed to identify on a map. Yet we are only able to estimate to the nearest few hundred thousand how many under-5s die each year.
Second, COVID-19 has caused a rash of panic-buying.
The shelves of supermarkets in rich countries have been stripped of a variety of what are seen to be basic necessities, yet would be totally alien to those facing NOFUD-28.
Loo-rolls – most of the households whose infants die young would not know what to do with a loo-roll if you gave them one. Many would not even recognise a loo: more than 20 per cent of the population of low-income countries still defecate in the open (the figure is more than 25 per cent in India and over 50 per cent in Niger, Solomon Islands and Eritrea, for example).
Sanitiser gel – again these would be unrecognisable objects to poor households, where even soap is a rare luxury: in fact, soap is often one of the first non-food items a household will buy if it is given a gift or a social transfer. Most young NOFUD-28 victims would be taught to wash their hands with ash or mud.
Bottled water – empty plastic bottles are a treasured storage item for many of the poorest households, but the household members would never get to drink the water that originally came in those bottles: their water more often comes from stagnant ponds, polluted rivers, saline boreholes, or arsenic-laden wells.
Packets of flour – for most NOFUD-28 victims, flour doesn’t come in packets: rather it has to be pounded from grains (of maize, rice, sorghum, etc.) in a tedious, energy-sapping daily grind, usually by women and girls.
Toothbrushes – most of our NOFUD-28 infants would love a toothbrush as a toy; but, globally, more people now own a cell-phone than a toothbrush. Those whose children are most likely to die young would use coal or twigs (typically of oak, neem or arak) to brush their teeth…or just their finger smeared with mud from the wall of their hut.
Guns (yes, there was a run on gunshops in America!) – whilst the efficacy of guns against COVID-19 is still unproven (clinical trials are ongoing), it is unlikely that they will be an effective response to NOFUD-28.
Finally, there are outpourings of global sympathy for every fatality of COVID-19. This is right, and as it should be: every life lost is a tragedy. We watch with horror as the number of deaths rises daily.
But it should be the same with NOFUD-28. We should be given a constant reminder that we are losing, every single day of every single year, nearly 15,000 children under the age of 5, with their entire lives ahead of them.
Who knows how many of them would have gone on to make a genuine contribution to society as medics, pioneers, researchers, artists, sportspersons, scientists, rappers, entrepreneurs? Cutting so many young lives short represents an appalling and unforgivable waste to our world.
So, yes, let’s pull together to defeat COVID-19, and minimise the depredations that it is causing. But let’s remember – as it recedes, and as loo-rolls, sanitiser gel, bottled water and toothbrushes reappear on our civilised supermarket shelves – that there is a much more terrible tragedy unfolding out there, killing more than five million infants and babies each year, that could be resolved with a smaller effort, and at a much lower cost, than that currently being mobilised against COVID-19.
Let’s take seriously the pledge of the Sustainable Development Goals (specifically SDG2) that by 2030 the phenomenon of NOFUD-28 will have been eradicated from our world.
Let’s also recognise now that we will not achieve this by a return to “normal”: “normal” is why we are in this mess in the first place. What we should be looking for is something much better, and it will require substantial changes from the “normal”.
At global level, we clearly need global solutions to what are now undeniably global problems: we have pretended for too long that we can cosset our pampered selves in comfortable isolation from the faraway problems of poverty, deprivation and climate change. At national level, we need far more enlightened and compassionate leadership than that offered by most of the current crop of posturing popinjays pandering to populist prejudice.
We need progressive systems of wages and taxation which reward handsomely those on the front-line who really make a difference to our lives, and much less those whose contribution to society is notional, superficial or ephemeral. And finally, at personal level, we all need to recognise we have a very comfortable life in developed countries (even when deprived of loo-rolls, sanitiser gel, bottled water and flour!). We must snap out of our current insularity, complacency and egotism before we go the way of previous “civilisations” that have succumbed to these same vicissitudes.
If we can make all these changes, we will have no difficulty overcoming COVID-19, then NOFUD-28. Then that can become our new normal.
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Financing social protection is the best investment a country can make for its future
by Olivier De Schutter
Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
The economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to invest heavily in a greener economy to create jobs and reduce inequalities, said Olivier De Schutter, who takes up his role today as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
"The COVID-19 crisis is an urgent call for action. If we make the right choices now, it will be an opportunity to transform our society into a more inclusive and equal one," he added.
With a projected fall in per capita income in more than 170 countries, people without social protection will be worst hit, De Schutter said. Worldwide, about four billion people have no social protection coverage and those in precarious employment, including the 2 billion workers in the informal sector, are often the first to lose their jobs.
"In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, we must move away from a development paradigm that puts economic growth first, while hoping to wipe out the environmental damages and to compensate for the social impacts of increased inequalities afterwards. The model of growth itself should incorporate environmental sustainability and social justice from the start," said the expert.
"In times of crisis of this magnitude, the pledge made within the International Labour Organization to implement universal social protection floors is ever more relevant and critical," De Schutter said.
The UN expert said social security programmes should be regarded as an investment, not a cost. "There are considerable benefits to society from investing in early childhood and social protection schemes that prevent low-income families from falling into poverty, if the recession is to be overcome."
Moreover, the financing of social protection is affordable: "On average, the cost of financing a full set of benefits included in social protection floors represent 4.2 percent of GDP on average for 57 low-income and lower-middle-income countries. This is the best investment a country can make for its future," De Schutter said.
Developed States have committed at least $8 trillion to defend against the economic impacts of COVID-19. This should be directed towards building a more inclusive economy based on the rights to work and to social security, as well as the rights to adequate housing, healthcare and education.
"Extreme poverty is not about a lack of income alone, or faults of individuals or families. It''s about political choices that exclude, discriminate and marginalise people," De Schutter said.
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