Caribbean children are on the brink of an obesity and mental health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of paediatricians have warned, calling for urgent action to protect their health.
The doctors also issued a fresh demand that regional governments must prioritise strong policies that protect the health of children and young people including front-of-package nutrition labelling and banning the marketing and sale of unhealthy products in and around schools while simultaneously ensuring that children have ongoing access to fruits and vegetables.
In an open letter dated March 4, the specialists, supported by the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), said they were “deeply concerned about the health and wellness of our region’s children and young people”.
The group said: “Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the lives of our children and young people have been turned upside down; the way that they learn, socialize, play, eat, move and sleep have changed, and these changes are having a substantial impact on their physical and mental health. We believe that we are on the cusp of a regional childhood obesity and mental health emergency.”
It pointed out that many children were consuming “excessive empty calories” while attending online school from home, adding that in some cases they were being exposed to “unstructured eating and oftentimes unrestricted access to foods, leading to overconsumption of foods high in salt, sugar, and fat”.
“In addition, the shift to online schooling coupled with pandemic-related restrictions have resulted in the reduction or elimination of physical education, extracurricular activities, reduced recreational playtime and significant jumps in screen time. Now more than ever, our children and young people are eating more and moving less,” said the letter published by the HCC.
The doctors said such behaviours have likely exacerbated the childhood overweight and obesity crisis the region already faced.
Without giving figures, they pointed out that since the pandemic, more children and young people have grown overweight and have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, musculoskeletal issues, and other endocrine conditions linked to their lifestyle.
“Additionally, COVID-19 control measures and related economic and food security challenges, including interruptions in national school meal programmes, have resulted in childhood undernutrition across the region,” the health professionals said.
The pandemic’s exacerbation of poor diets and physical inactivity has also been accompanied by “an alarming rise in mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, tic disorders, disrupted sleeping and disordered eating behaviours heralding potential eating disorders among children and young people”, said the doctors.
They added: “This silent mental health crisis can no longer be overlooked. Children and young people are trying to cope and navigate this new reality and they need us, as a community, to create safe spaces to listen to their concerns and not disregard them.
“COVID-19 has shed a light on the need for more structured, school-based and community-based mental health services across the region, in particular, appropriate services to support the unique mental health needs of children and young people. The mental health of children and young people need to be a priority.”
They encouraged older people to take more interest in listening to children and young people. They urged: “Ask them how we can help them be the healthiest version of themselves. Their voices are monumental in determining how we can create and ensure that sustainable change is implemented to mitigate this crisis.”
Declaring the toll of this crisis on children and young people is yet to be fully understood, the medical group said: “We cannot afford to wait until ‘things get back to normal’ and assume that our children and young people will emerge as ‘resilient’ creatures or that the damage caused to them during the pandemic can be undone.
“We must come together now to address this regional childhood obesity, undernutrition, and mental health emergency. If we allow levels of malnutrition to continue to rise unchecked, we are assigning an entire generation to a life living with non-communicable diseases and other health complications. If we do not address their mental health, we run the very real risk of developing lasting scars that could impact their growth, future productivity and quality of life.”
The group said a whole-of-society approach will be critical, pointing out that governments, the private sector, civil society and parents and guardians, along with fellow paediatricians and health care providers all have a role to play.
The group also called on governments to invest in school-based interventions that focus on ensuring that physical activity opportunities, good nutrition, specifically provision of uninterrupted nutritious school meals and mental health support are cornerstones within a school environment.
Calling for greater investment in mental health services and support for young people at the community level, the group also suggested that parenting programmes needed to be developed or expanded to ensure that children from vulnerable families get the appropriate support and protection they need.
The doctors urged the business community to halt its targeted marketing of unhealthy products on digital platforms and for civil society and youth advocates to continue to advocate for “protective nutrition policies”.