The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all our lives over the last few months. The unprecedented crisis has led many into long bouts of isolation and at the same time, we have seen communities coming together to keep each other protected.
Though studies have so far indicated that COVID-19 has comparatively low fatality among women, it is important to understand that for many women, the pandemic and consequent lockdown mean several more limitations. Not only are women having to tackle more domestic work with families being indoors but they also have lesser access to finances now. With travel being limited, they might be finding it tougher to visit doctors or hospitals for any health issues. These factors will go on to impact the well-being of women and girls and severely affect their nutritional outcomes in the long-term. Such a wide gap will be tough to bridge if we don't account for these challenges now.
Even in such a situation, we have to remember that women have unique and evolving nutritional requirements - while they may need fewer calories than men to fulfil their daily requirements, their needs for essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are much higher, which go a long way in tackling conditions like anaemia.
Good nutrition becomes all the more important when women are pregnant or have newborns whose health and nutrition are intrinsically connected to theirs. This is why unless we ensure that women receive adequate nutrition and care even during and after pandemics, we will not be able to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
This is the pathway through which an undernourished woman gives birth to a low-weight baby, who struggles with poor health and nutrition through his/her life and in case of girls, again give birth to another low-weight baby. Experts have time and again highlighted the need to break this vicious cycle that not only leads to an increased risk of diseases and infections, but also low productivity, lack of learning capacity, and poor cognitive skills " all of which impact the community and even the nation's economic progress.
On the other hand, well-nourished girls are able to attend school regularly, participate in the economy, take decisions in the family, have stronger immune systems, safer pregnancies and healthier children. This is why the first 1000 days between a woman's pregnancy and her child's second birthday are critical. This is the window when poor nutrition can cause irreversible damage to a child's growing brain and also make him/her susceptible to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases through the lifetime, without the right interventions. The lockdown, understandably, can impact all these essential factors in several households.
This is why it is all the more important that essential preventative and curative nutrition interventions " like an infant and young child feeding practices " continue even during such crisis situations. Even short-term disruptions could have irreversible effects on child survival, health and development, affecting the progress we have made so far. In Uttar Pradesh, we have made tremendous gains in the past decade in reducing maternal mortality from 440 in 2004-06 to 201 in 2014-16. This progress must not be lost to the pandemic.
Both Central and state governments have rolled out a slew of measures including cash transfers, additional public distribution of foods, portability of ration cards and doorstep delivery of key nutrition services to women and children.
For instance, the Ministry of Home Affairs has announced that the delivery of essential food supplies through social safety nets like Public Distribution System and Anganwadi centres will continue under lockdown restrictions. The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) will be using stocks lying in about 165 government godowns across the country for distribution of pulses under the direction of Ministry of Consumer Affairs.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development has sent advisories to states and Union Territories to deliver hot, cooked, mid-day meals and directed security allowances for students during the lockdown. Furthermore, in Uttar Pradesh, we have the smart city Prayagraj's helpline service '1920' from 30 March to ensure home delivery of ration, food packets, and medicines. By making it mandatory for women to share their Aadhaar card number for availing the benefits, the government aims to ensure that the ration is allocated within the family and that children are also prioritised.
Even as Central and state governments continue to streamline and implement these schemes, it is critical that beneficiaries avail of these provisions and focus on building their resilience towards outbreaks and diseases. Women should especially be aware of these measures that are being launched to secure their and their families' health and nutrition.
To ensure this, local leaders must actively engage with the community and spread awareness through the channels available at this time. Enlisting the support of local leaders such as Gram Pradhans and the village sarpanch involved in monitoring the delivery of nutritional rations in their area would help transform India's nutritional status.
Further, for initiating behavioural change at the grassroots, political leaders must keep the needs of women and children as a priority agenda while planning the next steps. It will be important to integrate nutrition policies in their COVID-19 response strategies, else women and children will bear an unfair long-term impact of this pandemic and lockdown.
As a nation, we have gone through several crises and have emerged victorious each time. We must ensure the same outcome this time too. It's important for us as leaders across party lines to take a gendered perspective on any new policy that is introduced on nutrition, to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on families, communities and the entire nation. The potential societal and economic gains from such investment are substantial. The onus is on us to ensure that these services and benefits reach those who need them the most.
The author is a BJP leader and Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) from Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.