Hunger: Our bigger crisis
The coronavirus had claimed 2,059 Filipino lives as of last weekend. Every year in recent years, more than 31,000 Filipino children have died due to undernutrition, as estimated by Save the Children. The organization linked 838,000 additional Filipino deaths in 2013 to hunger and malnutrition. These numbers tell us that we’ve had a far bigger public health crisis long before COVID-19 came, yet has not caused nearly as much concern or gained as much attention. Worse, the measures put in place to manage the coronavirus have dramatically worsened the bigger and wider problem of hunger.
In July, Social Weather Stations reported that involuntary hunger afflicted 5.2 million (20.9 percent) Filipino families, more than doubling the December figure (8.8 percent). It was also up 4.2 percentage points, or about one million more families, from the May figure of 16.7 percent, reflecting how the hunger problem had significantly escalated within the months of various levels of community quarantine.
Our hunger problem has actually been at crisis proportions for decades, a problem those of us not suffering from it have largely become desensitized to, lying beyond the average Filipino consciousness. Yet the implications of widespread hunger, especially of severe malnutrition in young children, have been far-reaching and have taken a great toll on the economy and society. I even dare say it’s a major factor behind our underdevelopment and historical lack of economic dynamism relative to our regional neighbors. I will return to this point later.
There has been growing awareness in recent years about the problem of stunting, or having a height well below the median for one’s age, which one in every three Filipino children under five years old suffers from. Stunting is the physical manifestation of severe malnutrition, but the problem goes well beyond the person’s height. It is well established in medical science that 90 percent of a person’s brain development occurs before the age of five years, the first three years being the most critical. Thus, a child stunted at age five is damaged for life, as s/he will never be able to achieve her/his full mental and physical potential. What this means is that the child is likely to grow up with lower cognitive ability and intellect, apart from smaller physical stature, thereby leading to generally lower productivity. Another sign of acute malnutrition is wasting, manifested in a bodyweight well below the median for a child’s given height. Unlike stunting, which is permanent, wasting may be corrected with proper feeding.
What has been our historical performance in these indicators? In 1989, nearly half (44.5 percent) of Filipino children below five years old were stunted, and 6.2 percent were wasted. Stunting incidence declined only gradually through the years, and even increased in some, reaching its lowest value of 30.3 percent in 2013, before rising anew to 33.4 percent in 2015, then down again to 30.3 percent in 2018. Wasting only moved below its 1989 level in 2003, having actually risen to 7.8 percent in 1993, and reached its peak much more recently at 8 percent in 2013, before moving down to 7.1 percent in 2015—even higher than it was in 1989. Fortunately, it declined to 5.6 percent in 2018.
What does this historical pattern tell us? The five-year-olds in 1989, nearly one of every two of whom were stunted, are today’s 31-year-olds, more or less the median group in our current workforce. It should be no puzzle why countless research studies over the years had shown labor productivity in the Philippines to be lower than in our neighbors. Even more sobering is how the Philippines ranks lowest in average IQ among all 10 Asean nations, based on cross-country studies by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen.
Today’s new entrants to the labor force were five-year-olds in 2010, when 33.7 percent (one in three) were stunted. In the following decades, our economy is said to achieve a “demographic sweet spot” as the largest segment of our population will be of working age. But given our stunting statistics, we’re talking more of quantity, perhaps forgetting about the quality of our labor force yet to come.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.