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Matabeleland North villagers face severe hunger amid economic collapse coupled with COVID-19. Image by Associated Press
Malnutrition is not a new scourge in Matebeleland North, new research data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
UMGUZA (The Citizen Bulletin) — Sithabile Mathe, a widow and guardian of four grandchildren from ward 6 Umguza district barely affords three meals a day let alone a single balanced one.
Her grandchildren are aged between 10 and 14 years but appear not fully grown for their age groups. Mathe says her meals are rigid- isitshwala, beans and dried vegetables.
“I cannot recall when we last had a decent meal with beef.”
Sithabile Mathe, grandmother to four grandchildren
“Life has been tough since COVID-19 started. Relatives who used to send food stopped leaving me to struggle to feed my grandchildren.”
Reports from non-governmental organisations show that malnutrition levels in Matabeleland North, one of the poorest and most vulnerable provinces is pegged at 5,5 % for infants between six and 59 months.
The province which Mguza is part of also has the highest proportion of households consuming poor diets at 44%. Furthermore, official government statistics show that as of 13 October at least 3586 households had benefited from Government COVID-19 cash transfer funds but the resurgent virus has not helped matters.
In its latest report, Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) says 35% of households sampled in the province are “consuming diets with low dietary diversity.” About 53,4% have medium acceptable diversity of food and just 11,6% have accessible variations.
Due to drought, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, most provincial dwellers are suffering from acute food shortages and are in need of aid.
Shortage of food is fueling stunted physical and cognitive development of children in Zimbabwe. Image by WFP Zimbabwe | Twitter
Jacob Ngwenya, a community leader at ward 6, Thokozani line in Mguza district says the pandemic changed the eating habits of most villagers due to worsening poverty levels.
“It's rare to have a homestead that has three meals a day. Normally it's two but of similar poor diet. Our health is deteriorating,” he says.
According to Ngwenya, he attributes poor diet to lack of money resulting largely from dwindling remittances from the diaspora since the first quarter of the year.
“Most of us here were dependent on children in South Africa. Due to COVID-19, funds dried up. They no longer regularly send money and food items.”
Fish, pumpkins, eggs and potatoes are a distant thought for Ngwenya. Based on the ZimVac report, household dietary diversity is defined as the number of unique foods consumed by household members over a given period but does not indicate the quantity of food consumed.
“The consumption of oil, meat and legumes has dropped indicating a worsening food access and food diversity challenge,” says the report adding that lack of most of the essential food elements can result in negative nutrition and health outcomes.
Mathe claims to have noticed a deterioration of health on her grandchildren and their age mates.
“Before lockdown they used to be fed at school by donors and appeared healthy, it has all changed. Having the same food daily is not good for their growth,” she says.
“It's always isitshwala, beans and other grains. We have no variety as we cannot afford.”
Findings by ZimVac on households consuming food rich in iron paint a grim picture as 77% indicated to have never taken such foods, 20% consumed between one and six days while three percent did consume for seven days. The trend is the same for protein rich foods, 48% (never consumed), 42 % (consumed one to six days) and 10% consumed by day seven.
The low levels of consumption of healthy food comes amid indications that a handful of vulnerable communities are accessing government assistance.
Finance Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube in his 2021 budget projections has said only 3586 households are currently receiving COVID-19 cash transfers. The province has estimated population of slightly above 700 000 of the 2012 census.
A total of $707 692 in local currency has been spent in the province to mitigate the pandemic scourge in the province, Professor Ncube highlighted. However, the government is working on increasing the number of beneficiaries and amounts received, the budget statement notes.
“To cushion the vulnerable members of society, Government allocated ZWL$2.4 billion for COVID-19 cash transfers. The identification of beneficiaries is ongoing and it is expected that the number will significantly increase. So far, over 202 077 beneficiaries are in the database and already receiving allowances.”
Currently ZWL$300 monthly allowances per household are doled out and Treasury has disbursed ZWL$98 million through the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare towards vulnerable households.
Matabeleland North has the highest proportion of households facing food insecurity. Graphic by ZimVac
ZimVac findings indicate that at 62.3 %, Matabeleland North is projected to have the highest proportion of households facing cereal insecurity during the peak hunger season of 2020/21.
Mathe says urgent food interventions are needed to boost their diets. “We really need to eat better food to boost our immune systems especially children. COVID-19 is real and is affecting our health.” UMguza is ranked among the top 30 districts with cereal insecurity at 66,5%.
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