Friday, March 5, 2021

Other health risks arise for kids from poor families as Covid-19 shuts schools

Schools across the country are closing as Covid-19 cases increase, but this has deprived students from low-income families of the only nutritious meals they get.

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A senior dietician from the health ministry has warned that the closure of schools nationwide at the start of the movement control order in March, and again early this month, could cut off much needed nutritious meals for children from the lower income bracket.

The latest restrictions have seen tens of thousands of children from poor families in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya again cut off from the government’s Supplementary Food Programme (RMT), which provides a menu of nutritious meals to deserving students each day.

Zaiton Daud, deputy director of the health ministry’s nutrition division, said the preparation of meals under the RMT was crucial to ensuring that students from poor families can be more alert during lessons, as many do not eat a proper meal before coming to school.

She said the closure of schools means that many children in low-come households now depend on food with limited nutritional value at an age when they should have a balanced and fully nutritional diet.

“Of course you can fill up by eating instant noodles every day, but there is no nutrition, only carbohydrate,” Zaiton told MalaysiaNow.

Ridzoni Sulaiman, chief dietitian at Hospital Kuala Lumpur, lists out other complications that could arise in the absence of a balanced meal for children.

He said a lack of nutritious intake not only affects a child’s mental development but also contributes to a stunt in physical and emotional growth while also affecting their thinking skills.

Children who lack proper nutrition could also be at risk of developing cancer and see slower cognitive development due to a deficiency of docosahexaenoic acid, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid better known as DHA, Ridzoni told MalaysiaNow.

The closure of schools means that many children in low-come households now depend on food with limited nutritional value at an age when they should have a balanced and fully nutritional diet.

Food rich in Omega-3 includes fish, anchovies, spinach, egg and nuts.

“All these make a balanced and healthy meal,” he added.

“DHA helps in the development of cells for better neurotransmission to the brain. Omega-3 helps control the receptors in the brain. Deficiency will lead to stunted brain development and a lower IQ,” he said.

The previous government proposed a Free Breakfast Programme which it said would benefit some 2.7 million children in government primary schools nationwide.

However, the plan failed to take off after the finance ministry reportedly cited a lack of funds for the project, which according to one estimate was about RM1.7 billion.

It is understood that a pilot phase of the programme had been implemented in select schools in the Klang Valley with sponsorship from the private sector.

Under the present government, the RMT was allowed to continue in schools nationwide, until the interruptions due to school closures.

‘Vicious cycle’

In 2017, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, and the World Health Organization said in a report that Malaysian children faced health problems such as obesity, stunted growth and anaemia, a condition caused by a lack of red blood cells in the body.

The report put Malaysia above 40 other countries facing nutrition problems.

The report also found that Kelantan had the most cases of children facing critical growth problems, followed by Putrajaya, the nation’s administrative capital.

But health risks for children from low-income families are just some of the many other problems they face as schools are closed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Economist Madeline Berma said not only are lessons interrupted, they are also denied interaction with their peers – a critical socialisation process.

Madeline, who is part of Putrajaya’s human rights commission Suhakam, urged authorities and NGOs to help ensure the continuous supply of healthy meals to families who are most vulnerable during the pandemic season.

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