COVID-19 and conflict: A deadly combination

The pandemic has deepened acute food insecurity in countries already under intense strain, leaving millions of children at risk of famine – and their futures in jeopardy.

By UNICEF
South Sudan. A woman holds her baby.
UNICEF/UNI375881/Ryeng
30 December 2020

In times of crisis, children suffer the most. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. The impacts of this pandemic will be felt for years to come, but it’s already clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated poverty and inequality in conflict-affected countries, adding massive pressure to already overwhelmed social and health systems. The result is more families without shelter, unable to meet even their most basic needs of food and water, and more children facing the prospect of becoming severely malnourished.

For countries reeling from the consequences of conflicts, disasters and climate change, COVID-19 has turned a nutrition crisis into an imminent catastrophe.

As we enter 2021, UNICEF is deeply concerned for the health and well-being of 10.4 million children suffering from acute malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeast Nigeria, the Central Sahel, South Sudan and Yemen – all countries or regions experiencing dire humanitarian crises while also grappling with intensifying food insecurity, a deadly pandemic and, with the exception of the Central Sahel, a looming famine.

UNICEF is on the ground and working with partners to minimize the impact of a downward spiral that is jeopardizing children’s development – building the basis of recovery, providing a second chance, and ultimately saving lives.

 

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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two children drink a nutrition drink.
UNICEF/UN0270028/Prinsloo
Two children eat a food supplement at a government clinic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The scale of humanitarian needs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is staggering. Chronic poverty and weak essential services, recurrent armed conflict, acute malnutrition and major epidemic outbreaks, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have all heightened the vulnerability of families. An estimated 3.3 million children under five will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021. 

Democratic Republic of the Congo. A community mobilizer shares guidance on good nutrition practice.
UNICEF/UNI362165/Desjardins
A community mobilizer shares best practices for child health and nutrition in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

To save the lives of children suffering from severe wasting, UNICEF is supporting early detection at the community and family levels and providing treatment for the most serious form of malnutrition through community and health facilities. UNICEF is also supporting preventive interventions, such as infant and young child feeding, counselling, growth monitoring, and vaccinations.

 

Yemen

Yemen. A child is weighed at a health centre.
UNICEF/UNI366578/Abaidi
A child is treated for malnutrition at a health centre in Sana'a in Yemen.

Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Protracted armed conflict, widespread economic collapse and a breakdown in national systems and services has left 12.4 million children in need of humanitarian assistance, with around 358,000 children severely malnourished.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the suffering as remittances have fallen, earning opportunities have dried up, health services have been stretched to the limits and travel restrictions have compromised access to markets. Millions of parents are being left to make the gut-wrenching choice between food and medical care for their children.

Yemen. A child's arm is measured at a health centre.
UNICEF/UN0291546/Fuad
A child's arm is measured as part of the screening for malnutrition at a health centre in Yemen.

UNICEF plans to reach more than 289,000 severely malnourished children under five with treatment in Yemen in 2021 and will continue to work to build up water, sanitation, hygiene and health systems to support these efforts.

 

Central Sahel

Burkina Faso. A child is check for malnutrition.
UNICEF/UNI394847/Dejongh
A child is screened for malnutrition at a health centre in Kaya in Burkina Faso.

In the Central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, intensifying conflict, displacement and climate shocks have led to increased food insecurity across the region. An estimated 5.4 million people will struggle to meet their daily food needs during the next lean season.

Mali. A nutrition specialist inspects Eat & Play boxes.
UNICEF/UNI317125/Coulibaly
A nutrition specialist at UNICEF's office in Timbuktu, Mali, inspects Eat and Play boxes at a health centre.

Across the three countries, the total number of malnourished children could rise to a staggering 2.9 million, including 890,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

 

South Sudan

South Sudan. A boy sits outside with his mother.
UNICEF/UN0372517/Ryeng
A child sits in a play area at a nutrition centre in Yambio in South Sudan.

South Sudan is facing multiple humanitarian crises, with many parts of the country still affected by concurrent inter-communal violence, armed conflict, cyclical drought and perennial flooding. Years of conflict have resulted in displacement, increasing rates of food insecurity, limited access to quality basic health and nutrition services, and poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene. An estimated 1.4 million children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021, the highest number since 2013.

South Sudan. A woman holds her child.
UNICEF/UN0372514/Ryeng
A girl looks at a 'watch' made from palm leaves at a nutrition centre in Yambio in South Sudan.

UNICEF is working with partners to provide nutrition services for children and women in South Sudan, and aims to provide treatment for severe acute malnutrition for more than 270,000 children aged 6 to 59 months, and ensure almost 3 million children aged 6 to 59 months receive vitamin A supplements every six months.

 

Northeast Nigeria

Nigeria. A woman holds her child.
UNICEF/UNI208575/Nwakalor
A woman holds her child outside a therapeutic feeding centre in Maiduguri in Nigeria.

Over a decade of armed conflict in northeast Nigeria has resulted in large-scale population displacements and massive humanitarian needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the threats facing affected families, with lockdowns and other COVID-19 prevention measures disrupting the food system and impacting already weak basic service infrastructure. As a result, more than 800,000 children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021.

Nigeria. A woman talks with a health worker.
UNICEF/UNI208863/Nwakalor
A UNICEF nutrition specialist speaks with a woman about her child at a therapeutic feeding centre in Maiduguri in Nigeria.

In coordination with the Government, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, UNICEF will target the most vulnerable populations in Nigeria in 2021, including internally displaced persons and host communities affected by conflict and natural disasters. UNICEF’s strategy will include the continuous sensitization of communities, including training for mothers and caregivers on screening children for malnutrition.

 

 

Despite the enormous challenges posed by COVID-19, UNICEF and partners have continued to deliver lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable children and their families in the hardest to reach areas. Together, we have prevented famine before. With international support and unimpeded access to every child and family, we can do so again.

 

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