One leading advocate for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases in Barbados and the region is urging leaders to place more attention on food and nutrition as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
President of the Healthy Coalition Caribbean (HCC) Sir Trevor Hassell said while a lot of consideration was being given to new ways of doing business, and the rebuilding and diversification of economies, equal attention should be given to ensuring a “COVID-19 health legacy resulting in the greatest number of people receiving effective, affordable care in healthy national environments facilitated by pro-health policies and legislation”.
Health officials have repeatedly warned that people with pre-existing medical conditions were at greater risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the respiratory illness, which has claimed the lives of seven people locally, and more than 374,500 people worldwide as of Monday.
“Paramount among the health conditions to which attention should be paid are the chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the links between NCDs and infectious diseases with people living with NCDs and obesity being more susceptible to severe complications and death from COVID-19,” he said.
“The increased attention to NCDs has brought into sharp focus the large numbers of people living with NCDs – four out of ten adults in many Caribbean countries – with some eight out of ten deaths being due to this group of diseases,” he pointed out.
The public health figure added that obesity and overweight were at critical levels in the region with almost every country reporting that at least 50 per cent of all adults being overweight or obese, and some countries reporting rates as high as 70 per cent.
He argued that unhealthy diets were contributing to the high levels of NCDs, which was leading to “much sickness and death and are leading barriers to socio-economic development in the region”.
He added that the main contributor to an unhealthy diet remained the high importation of “unhealthy foods in the region, with many Caribbean countries importing more than 90 per cent of what they consume”.
He said circumstances of the pandemic and its aftermath were “threatening to undermine the gains made in recent years in prevention and control of diet-related NCDs as well as the maintenance of good health among people living with NCDs”.
Stating that food nutrition and security was important and inextricably linked to the high prevalence of NCDs in the region, Hassell insisted that coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic countries should focus on developing a sustainable regional food system to promote healthy eating.
“A legacy of the COVID -19 era, therefore, needs to be a fundamental tackling of the health challenges posed by NCDs at regional and national levels, with an important component of this being the development and employment of healthy resilient and sustainable regional food systems through increased domestic production and trade,” he recommended.
Hassell is of the view that the national and regional food and nutrition security measures should be guided by carefully developed policies “and framed by supportive environments” and include previously proposed recommendations.
Among those recommendations are for governments to include coherent food and nutrition security measures in their national COVID-19 response plans; an expansion and improvement of emergency food assistance and social protection programmes; and support for home or backyard gardening.
The plan also calls for private sector support for small farmers, fisherfolk, and for a private-public sector resilient regional food system across supply chain.
Hassell, who issued the call in one of his recent newsletters, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic represents an opportunity for a paradigm shift in the Caribbean in the way we produce and consume healthy food. It presents an opportunity for a regional approach to achieving the goal of maximum food security, with support for sub-regional and national approaches for addressing the food self-security concerns”.