epa01524056 A Filipino child lines up for free porridge during a charitable offering by a Filipino doctor who wishes to be anonymous, in Manila, Philippines on 18 October 2008. Local economists are predicting bad prospects for the Philippines in 2009, amid an impending global financial meltdown. Asian stock markets incurred small gains and losses on 17 October 2008, after investors reacted to mixed signals to the Asian markets with most markets closing the week down. EPA/ALANAH M. TORRALBA

Child hunger and COVID-19 deaths a flawed comparison

AAP FactCheck May 4, 2021

The Statement

A social media post compares the number of people who purportedly died from COVID-19 over the preceding two months with the number of children who it claims died from starvation.

The April 13 post by a New Zealand-based Facebook page features a meme showing an image of a man blowing his nose below the text, “In the last 2 months 3,000 people died from coronavirus.”

A second image, of a group of dark-skinned children gathered around what appears to be food, is included under the words, “But 500,000 children died of starvation.”

The post text states: “Our perception of reality has been warped and contrived!” At the time of writing, it had generated more than 250 interactions.

A meme comparing COVID-19 mortality to child starvation deaths.
 A meme shared on Facebook claims only 3000 people died from COVID-19 in the past two months. 

The Analysis

The post may draw valid attention to the plight of impoverished children – whose outcomes are expected to worsen due to the socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic – but it misleadingly cites drastically wrong COVID-19 death figures to make its point.

The claim that 3000 people died from the coronavirus over the preceding two months can’t be squared with the data; in fact, on the single day before the post, April 12, 11,854 people were recorded as dying from COVID-19, according to World Health Organization figures.

In the two-month period from February 13 to April 12, the same data showed there were more than 570,000 COVID-19 deaths recorded worldwide. As of May 4, nearly 3.2 million fatal cases had been reported globally.

When it comes to the number of “children who died of starvation”, however, the meme is closer to the mark – although the source of its figure is unclear.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, child mortality rates had been trending down. In 1990, the median estimate of under-five deaths globally was 12.494 million.

In 2019, it was 5.189 million, according to UNICEF data released in September 2020, although the UN agency described these 14,000 under-five deaths a day as “an intolerably high number of largely preventable child deaths”.

The annual figure equates to around 864,000 deaths every two months. UNICEF says that nearly half of all deaths of children aged under five are attributable to malnutrition – not far from the post’s claimed 500,000 figure.

WHO provided a similar figure in 2014, when it said that “poor nutrition causes nearly half (45 per cent) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year”. That equates to 517,000 deaths every two months.

However, it should be noted that while the Facebook post says “starvation” causes 500,000 child deaths each year, this is not the same as malnutrition. A 2020 UNICEF summary of trends in child malnutrition says malnutrition includes stunting, which results from poor nutrition in utero and early childhood; wasting, the life-threatening result of poor nutrient intake and disease; and childhood obesity.

A UN World Food Programme representative, Jane Howard, told the BBC in 2013 that attributing figures like the three million child deaths to “hunger’ – as some campaigns did – was misleading as only a small proportion of these children actually “starve to death”.

“But the truth is that the vast majority of those numbers that we’re talking about, are children who, because they haven’t had the right nutrition in the very earliest parts of their lives, are really very susceptible to infectious diseases, like measles,” Ms Howard said at the time.

The UNICEF data also focuses on children under five, while the post refers only to “children”. AAP FactCheck asked UNICEF for data on deaths from malnutrition among children aged five and older, and any information on deaths just from “starvation” or wasting. The UN agency had not provided further data at the time of publication.

UNICEF predicted last year that COVID-19 could also have a severe impact on child health and nutrition, with an extra 6.7 million extra children worldwide at risk of suffering from wasting due to the pandemic’s effect on household incomes, food supply and services like health and social protection (page 25).

It estimated that an additional 128,605 deaths could occur in children under the age of five over the year due to increases in wasting due to the pandemic.

A child receives free porridge
 UNICEF says the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to millions more children going hungry. 

The Verdict

The post wrongly states only 3000 people died from COVID-19 in the preceding two months. In fact, there were more than 500,000 recorded deaths.

Its claim of 500,000 child deaths every two months is plausible, according to estimates from UNICEF and the WHO. However, the agencies’ figures are not based on deaths from “starvation” but malnutrition and related health outcomes, and include only children aged under five. An official estimate for all child deaths due to starvation was not available.

Partly False ÔÇô Content that has some factual inaccuracies.

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