The COVID-19 pandemic has affected food security for hundreds of thousands of Guatemala’s most vulnerable people. Right now, 1.2 million people are currently in need of emergency food aid – an increase of 570,000 from the beginning of the year – as a result of the loss of livelihoods related to the pandemic. More than 15,000 cases of acute malnutrition among children were reported at the end of May 2020, exceeding the total number of cases reported for all of 2019.
If the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse in Guatemala, people might see a further loss of income, combined with a possible health system collapse, leading to further increases in acute malnutrition and lives at risk from lack of medical care.
"For more than two months, health services have focused on actions to prevent COVID-19, which is why regular maternal and child health care services have not been provided regularly, putting the health of mothers and children at risk," explained Jessica Coronado Aguilar, nutrition and health coordinator for Action Against Hunger in Central America.
In Guatemala, health systems are weak and fragmented and specialized medical services are concentrated in a few urban centers. Most Guatemalans do not have access to health care, including COVID-19 testing or treatment services.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) points to the urgent need to increase testing, diagnostic and preparedness capacity of health services, while the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission and medical personnel warn of an imminent collapse of the main public hospitals as well as lack of materials and supplies to deal with the pandemic.
While infection rates place Brazil and Peru as the new epicenters of the pandemic in Latin America, the impact may be even greater in countries like Guatemala, which are characterized by low public investment, lack of adequate health infrastructure, and large gaps in access to basic systems, including health care.
"More than half of Guatemalan households are having difficulty accessing markets and four out of ten families are using coping strategies that leave them worse off, such as depleting their savings or selling some of their assets," says Angela Naletilic, Deputy Director for Action Against Hunger in Central America.
"We are especially concerned about the Dry Corridor area, where cases of acute malnutrition among children under five are increasing and where outpatient consultations and malnutrition prevention services have stopped functioning normally since the pandemic was declared.” The Dry Corridor region has experienced irregular rainfall, leading to both severe droughts and flooding.
Despite disease control measures that include travel restrictions and border closures, deportations – including unaccompanied children and adolescents – from Mexico and the United States to Guatemala have continued over the past three months. To date, 7,876 people, including some who have tested positive for COVID-19, have been deported or expelled back to Guatemala.
In addition, many families are facing a decline in household income as remittances from abroad to Guatemala decline. This is compounded by the loss of approximately 500,000 jobs in the country due to the impact of the pandemic and as well as containment measures. With nearly 8,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, Guatemala is part of a region that could be home to 29 million more people living in poverty by the end of the pandemic.
In Guatemala, Action Against Hunger is distributing food as well as hygiene and disinfection kits, while monitoring the nutrition status of children under five to prevent and treat early cases of malnutrition. In coordination with public health services, we have provided frontline staff with personal protective equipment and digital thermometers, and have been carrying out mass awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of COVID-19.