MORRISTOWN, New Jersey — The novel COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to international development work and has upended years of progress in many countries. Economic downturns and health system disruptions expect to increase levels of malnutrition, especially in young children and mothers. Increased funding for development projects can ensure that those most impacted by the pandemic will not be neglected. The Borgen Project spoke with Jennifer Nielsen, senior nutrition advisor at Helen Keller International, about why it is more important than ever to continue to support international development. Sighting the Suaahara Project II in Nepal, Nielsen also describes how current projects are vital in fighting malnutrition in conjunction with COVID-19.
The Impact of COVID-19
The International Policy Research Institute projects the COVID-19 pandemic will thrust an additional 140 million people into extreme poverty. Furthermore, the World Food Programme predicted that the number of people in low and middle-income countries facing acute food security would double to 265 million in 2020 compared to the previous year. The Standing Together for Nutrition consortium anticipates that the COVID-19 pandemic could cause another 9.3 million children to suffer from wasting between 2020 and 2022, which will have life-long consequences.
The pandemic has disrupted or damaged almost every system that people in developing countries rely on — from lost income streams to the redirection of healthcare services into the pandemic response and from pandemic-caused lockdowns to fractured food distribution systems.
Nepalese Migrant Workers
Nepalese migrant workers and their families struggled particularly severely when migrants were forced to return home after India announced a country-wide lockdown on March 25, 2020. Almost 80% of the migrants came from vulnerable households, about 20% have disabled family members and about 64% came from Poor and Food Insecure (PFI) households. For these families, losing an income stream is devastating, according to Nielsen.
Despite this, programs such as Suaahara II ensure severely impoverished families do not face the permanent consequences of poverty.
What is the Suaahara Project II?
Suaahara, which means good health in the Nepali language, is a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and carried out by a consortium of nonprofit organizations, led by Helen Keller International. Operating in 40 Nepali districts, the project focuses on improving the health and nutritional outcomes of impoverished women and children within their first 1,000 days. It uses a multi-sectoral approach to improve nutrition, recognizing that “nutrition is impacted by health, by food security, by climate change, by water and sanitation and by local development policies.” If the project reaches its goals, it will improve the nutrition and health of 1.5 million women and children.
Suaahara II works on the national, district, community and household levels to ensure the impacts are structural and long-lasting while still personal. For example, one strategy relies partially on Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) to educate pregnant women and mothers on how best to nourish their children in the first 1,000 days (from conception to the child’s second birthday). Home visits and mothers’ groups help in this regard. According to Nielsen, another element of the project deals with “promoting health-seeking practices such as preventive healthcare during pregnancy, antenatal care visits and all the treatment that women get during pregnancy to provide a safe pregnancy.”
A Multilevel Approach
Helen Keller International and partners work to strengthen nutrition services on a structural level too. This ensures families have access to the resources required to implement the concepts they are learning. For example, Helen Keller’s Enhanced Homestead Food Production program targets people in the most disadvantaged cast. The program helps them grow nutrient-rich foods to eat and sell and connects them to market opportunities to lift them out of extreme poverty.
Finally, the organization helps local governments allocate resources for nutrition and health systems such as “water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure or the capacity to grow food.” This empowers community members to make decisions about the health of their village.
These practices have been successful. A survey report done by Helen Keller International found that almost every indicator of maternal and child health and nutrition improved between 2017 and 2019. For example, the percentage of pregnancies in which the mother had at least four prenatal visits with a doctor went from 79.5% in 2017 to 88.8% in 2019.
The Suaahara Project II and COVID-19
When the novel coronavirus hit, “all of Helen Keller’s field activities ground to a halt” and much of the Suaahara Project II came to a standstill. But, as the nonprofit secured personal protective equipment and fieldwork restarted, the project proved itself crucial for the success of Nepal’s public health system.
While malnutrition reduction is more important than ever, the infrastructure built into the Suaahara project can also aid in the fight against COVID-19, says Nielsen. For example, when migrants first returned, Helen Keller staged a communications campaign through cellphone numbers it had previously collected for Suaahara II. The nonprofit was able to inform people about COVID-19, the associated symptoms and the relevant measures to take.
The Suaahara project will continue for two extended years until 2023. Thanks to pre-established infrastructure, USAID approved additional funding for Helen Keller International to assist in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
While media and the public focus on COVID-19, other public health work must not be ignored. To save millions of lives and to ensure that hundreds of millions more are not permanently negatively altered, malnutrition-reduction projects must continue. With U.S. government-funded development programs like Suaahara II, projects can continue to provide life-changing care to at-risk populations while also fighting the novel COVID-19 pandemic.
– Elyssa Nielsen