Dr. Ananya Awasthi
With the Prime Minister’s call for a nationwide lockdown on the 24th of March 2020, India became one of the first countries to follow physical distancing at such a large scale. While the lockdown aimed to delay and control the community spread of infection, swift and coordinated health system response was the need of the hour.
At this juncture, India tapped into the potential of publicly funded health systems and front-line functionaries to respond to the “double duty” of controlling the spread of coronavirus and providing continuity to existing health and nutrition services. In this context, the role played by our 1.3 million  strong force of Anganwadi workers on the front lines with strategic and administrative support from the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD), is a strong case in point.
One of the first steps that the Ministry undertook was to educate the communities about the spread and control of the novel virus. In this regard, Anganwadi workers, went door to door sharing information about the nature of the infectious disease, emphasizing on the need for physical distancing, hand hygiene, and sanitation and encouraging the use of personal protective gear.
This was especially critical in learning key health-promoting behaviors like hand washing and wearing of masks. While it may be argued that the use of Mass Media by the Ministry and development agencies, has played a big part in raising public awareness about COVID-19, women are much more likely to model their behaviours based on what they “see” and “hear” from a front line health worker, who is a member of their local community.
Second, due to the lockdown mandating the closure of Anganwadi centers and primary schools, it was speculated that access to ration allowances and mid-day meals for mothers and children would be severely restricted. To address this situation, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, innovated an alternate strategy to provide doorstep delivery of Take-Home Ration (THR).
Key components of THR kits delivered to pregnant and lactating women included packets of rice, wheat, and daal (pulses).
Some states also managed to deliver mid-day meals to children, including the distribution of eggs. As per the government sources, the Ministry has reached out to more than 85 million beneficiaries for the delivery of supplementary nutrition during the COVID-19 lockdown. Another useful innovation has been the deployment of community kitchens by the state governments, women collectives, self-help groups, and non-governmental organizations.
As of 13 April, nearly 10,000 community kitchens were set across the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha.
As far as the migrant workers are concerned, in Uttar Pradesh alone, more than 60 million packets of food have been distributed through a state-wide network of community kitchens set up by the state and non-state actors.
Third, not losing sight of their core mandate to promote exclusive breastfeeding, complimentary feeding, immunization, and provide nutritional support to severely acute malnourished children and anaemic mothers, the Ministry has reached out to more than 5,20,000 thousand field functionaries (Anganwadi Workers/ Childline functionaries/ Women Home caregivers/Community viewers) through its online workshops and orientation webinars.
Given the lockdown restrictions, Ministry at the center and its corresponding state departments, have been using the ICDS-CAS (Common Application Software) and WhatsApp as quick and effective ways to disseminate guidelines and advisories, context-specific messaging on health and nutritional needs of women and children and COVID-19 specific guidance on breastfeeding and weaning of children.
Fourth, it is important to address the economic impact of the lockdown and how it has affected the purchasing power of the population. Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its recent policy advisory, acknowledging an imminent global recession, has already prompted the countries to prepare an economic package, which focuses on re-furbishing the food supply chains and strengthening food systems to tide through a potential food security crisis. In this context, the Government of India has announced a stimulus package of $ 22.5 billion or 1.7 trillion INR targeted at low-income households.
This includes direct benefit transfer (DBT) to farmers, rural workers, poor pensioners, construction workers, low-income widowers; distribution of 10 kgs of rice or wheat per person and 1 kg of pulses per household for three months; medical insurance cover of 5 million rupees per front-line worker, increased wages for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and collateral-free loans to Self-Help Groups and Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs).
Conclusively, India’s COVID-19 response has set up a model for how governments can come together with the development partners and private players to fight a public health emergency. Ministry of Women and Child Development can capitalize on the current public attention and push for multi-ministerial efforts to address the needs of malnutrition and food security in the most nutritionally and economically vulnerable populations of migrant workers, urban poor, and small and marginal farmers.
As the government aims for an Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, which resonates with the global call for self-sufficiency and sustainable development, the current lockdown can be used as an opportunity to go beyond food security and lay the foundations for a “nutrition-secure” India. This must include policy convergence between agriculture and nutrition, greater investment in our public health systems and front-line workforce, resilient food systems, increased consumer demand for dietary diversification and a move towards self-sufficient communities that meet their nutritional requirements from locally grown food.
Assistant Director, Harvard School of Public Health-India Research Center