How worsening Covid-19 distress has left Indian women undernourished

How worsening Covid-19 distress has left Indian women undernourished

Mamta Kol has been eating chapati and salt at least two or three times a week since her husband lost his job two years ago following the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. The 32-year-old mother of two weighs only 40 kg and often misses her period due to her weakness.

Although community health workers visiting Kol village, Kothar in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh told her to include milk and fruits in her diet, she continues to eat the bare minimum – leftovers after feeding her husband and their two sons aged 10 and 7.

“I find it tragically hilarious that these workers are asking me to drink milk and eat fruit every day,” Kol said. “There were days when my family had to sleep on an empty stomach.”

Her husband Ramchandra Kol worked in a factory that made plastic bags in Ahmedabad. In March 2020, when a nationwide lockdown was announced, Ramchandra’s factory ceased operations and he had to walk seven days to return home to his village. More than two years later, although normalcy has been restored, Ramchandra dares not return. He now works for a daily wage on construction sites in the area.

The same story is playing out in other villages in the region. At least 90% of men used to seasonally migrate to other cities and states for work. But since the first wave of Covid-19 hit, almost none of them do it anymore.

Ramchandra Kol now manages to find work once every four days on average. This directly affected the quantity and quality of food on her family’s table. With inflation soaring, the family prepares simple meals of dal and rice or vegetables and chapatis, but even then there is not enough for everyone. By the time it is Mamta Kol’s turn to eat, there is hardly any dal or vegetable left.

Ram Naresh, district coordinator of the Right to Food Campaign, said that during the pandemic many tribal families have received free grain and assistance from the government, non-profit organizations and Civil society. The Right to Food Campaign is an informal network of individuals and organizations working to ensure the implementation of the right to food in India.

“The real problem now is that men are not going back to [or not being asked to] work and, in fear of another such lockdown, not using all their small earnings for food,” he said. “This poor diet coupled with the stress of Covid-19 has led to a change in the general nutritional profile.”

family food

Women in the average Indian household are largely responsible for cooking and putting food on the table. Since they make sure everyone is well fed, they are usually the last to eat. In an insufficient food environment, this means a poor diet consisting mainly of leftovers.

Dipa Sinha, an economist and leading campaigner for the right to food campaign, said the distress caused by the initial lockdown had intensified. During the two waves of the pandemic in India in 2020 and summer 2021, the Right to Food Campaign conducted Hunger-Watch surveys.

“Two years of post-Covid distress have drained the financial resources of most families, reducing the variety of foods on the table,” Sinha said. “Combined with less access to nutrition, women’s health has been more affected than men’s.”

Many factors influence differences in how food is distributed within households, including income disparity, social status and relationships. But more important is the role of women in a household where they only eat after everyone else has eaten.

A homeless woman waits to receive food during the lockdown, in Kolkata in April 2020. Credit: Reuters.

Soumya Gupta, a research economist at the Tata-Cornell Institute who co-authored studies on Covid-19 and women’s nutrition, said that physiologically the nutritional needs of women differ from those of men.

“Depending on the stage of the life cycle, adolescent girls and women who are menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding have greater nutritional needs,” Gupta said. “This must be seen in the context of the food deficit that has already persistently marked women’s food consumption.”

She added: “During the pandemic, this gap has likely widened – and is unlikely to be evenly/equally distributed among members of the same household – thus affecting women’s nutritional status more negatively than that of men”.

Food shortage, high cost

A diverse daily diet rich in protein, vitamins and minerals ensures a nutritious lifestyle. A healthy diet also helps strengthen the immune system and promotes recovery from disease.

But during the pandemic, disruptions to food supply chains, coupled with a significant loss of income as many lost their jobs, led to a food security and sufficiency crisis.

Supply chain issues are driving up prices, making staples unaffordable for many.

A 2021 study from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition found that during the pandemic there was a significant drop in household food expenditure, particularly on a diverse diet and especially non-essential foods. rich in protein and key micronutrients.

Researchers have found that the average Indian’s diet costs around $1 or around Rs 80 per day, which is much lower than the “cheapest healthy diet recommended by the Eat-Lancet Commission” of $3 to $5 (Rs 240-Rs 400) per person. per day.

According to Gupta, the free food rations provided through the public distribution system only ensured caloric sufficiency and prevented an increase in hunger levels. But micronutrient malnutrition is thought to have increased. The World Health Organization states that micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed by the body in small amounts, but essential for maintaining good health.

“We make this distinction between calories and micronutrients to convey that while calorie security was assured, nutritional insecurity was exacerbated during the pandemic,” Gupta said.

She added that nutritional insecurity was also reflected in the significant decline in women’s dietary diversity. Researchers found that the diversity of women’s diets in 2020 was significantly lower than in 2019, and that fewer women consumed protein-rich dairy products and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods. nutritious.

The National Family Health Survey-5 released in November last year showed that the overall nutritional profile of Indian women and children has declined since the 2015-2016 survey. The fifth round of the survey was conducted between 2019 and 2021.

The report showed that the percentage of anemic women fell from 53.1% to 57% and that of anemic adolescent girls (15-19 years) to 59.1% from 54.1%. This huge change in nutritional profile clearly indicated that women’s health was directly affected by their socio-economic conditions.

The survey also showed that the number of anemic children under five rose to 67.1% from 58.6% in the last survey. This means that two out of three children under the age of five in India are anaemic. In the same age group, the percentage of overweight children increased from 2.1% to 3.45%, meaning that their diets were centered on grains and heavy on processed foods.

What can be done?

Experts emphasize the importance of government policies aimed at ensuring nutrition security with the nutritional needs of women in mind. For example, the public distribution system can provide nutrient-rich non-essential foods, Aanganwadi centers can provide micronutrient-rich alternatives, and schools can provide protein-rich midday meals.

Despite overflowing stocks of wheat and other grains in government godowns during the lockdowns, it was the distribution system that was the problem, Sinha said.

According to Gupta, major reforms of the market and distribution systems can eliminate bottlenecks on the supply side. “An expansion of direct benefit transfers can ensure that households have access to and can afford healthy foods in local markets,” Gupta said.

For now, Naresh and his Right to Food Campaign team are working to help local residents understand the importance of growing their own food. With their help, some families, including Kol’s, have started growing daily vegetables in small plots outside their homes.

Although it has helped, there is still not enough for the whole family. “I started growing vegetables near the pond, but it’s not enough for the four of us,” said Mamta Kol. “My first duty is to ensure that my husband and children are fed.”

Cheena Kapoor is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and photographer who focuses on social and health issues. His Twitter account is @cheenakapoor.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Thomsons Reuters Foundation.

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