• Today’s malnourished kids are tomorrow’s drug addicts

    Marlen V. Ronquillo

    Marlen V. Ronquillo

    This is an interesting question. Whatever happened to the five-year-old kids who were on the “wasted and stunted” list 15 years ago due to malnutrition? I will throw in one answer: many of them may have gone into hopeless lives, then into illegal drugs. And some of them may be part of the rising statistics on the drug users and pushers killed in the current campaign against illegal drugs.

    Correct me if I am wrong. I have no empirical basis. But after the Save the Children reported on the state of child malnutrition in the country – a depressing and alarming report as usual – one cannot help but connect the country’s critical child malnutrition problem to wasted adult lives. Or, this grim but entirely plausible scenario come adulthood: drug-addled lives, aborted lives.

    Ten years ago, the data on child malnutrition was about eight to 10 million and these were the kids who were about to start school or were of elementary school age. It is definitely higher now and according to the Save the Children report, the increase in stunting for kids under 5 years old stepped up to 33 percent in 2016 from 30 percent in 2013.

    Poor hair and skin. Bloated stomachs. Decaying teeth. Too short. Too thin. And probably minds that cannot function well. Infirmities and deformities, if left unchecked, will be carried over to adulthood.

    A few, perhaps, can escape from this trap and write their own up-from-the-bootstrap stories. But they are the very, very rare exceptions. A child condemned to poverty and the resulting malnutrition may find it hard to write a struggle-against-great-odds story. The rich kids you read about in the glossy magazines graduate from the international high schools based here – then go to Harvard, Stanford or Yale. Or to NYU/USC as the last option. The stunted kids go direct to hellish lives.

    And worse, there is a grievous economic cost to the surging problem of child malnutrition. Save the Children calculates it at 3 percent of GDP or about P328 billion a year. How grim is the cost of the failure to rein in child malnutrition? Save the Children framed it in this context – total economic toll is larger than ravages of the 15 natural disasters that hit the country last year.

    Here is the breakdown:
    P165.5 billion was a result of the lower level of education achieved by members of the workforce who suffered from stunting as kids. P160 billion lost due to premature deaths of children who would have been members of the working force now. P1.23 billion from the additional educational cost to cover grade repetitions linked to malnutrition.

    We do not see bodies being fished out of murky waters. We do not see families grieving over their electrocuted next of kin, which is staple fare on primetime TV. We do not see landslides burying entire communities. But the silent, non-TV fare waste of human lives is constant, horrific and relentless.

    In Mindanao, child malnutrition is a staggering 40 percent, and here, Save the Children used my favorite area in benchmarking the worst of the PH problems – sub-Sahara. Not only malnutrition. But literacy and poverty levels in regions such as Caraga and the ARMM are at par with sub-Saharan data.

    It is not the job of the NGO to establish the link between stunting at an early age to desperation and hopelessness at the adult stage. But the TV footage of the dead from the drug war of the government presents a validating optic. Tattooed men and women. Bullet-riddled bodies of long-haired, emaciated young men on flooded, grimy cement floors of shanties in the urban slum colonies. The full and the graphic visuals of hardened young men and women who may have been stunted by malnutrition during their childhood.

    Why was 2015 a terrible year for child malnutrition? What happened to the 6-7 percent growth rate from 2010 to 2015, which was the dominant pursuit of the previous administration? Consistent GDP growth should have reined in, even by a bit, the malnutrition problem if we were to believe the “inclusive growth” spiel of the previous government. Instead, malnutrition surged in a supposed age of economic plenty.

    Two reasons for this:
    Trickle-down is bunk and is a discredited theory. Pope Francis has been telling us this hard truth since the start of his papacy and our leaders just failed to listen. The previous administration served the Top 1 percent and left the vulnerable to fend for themselves.

    Mr. Aquino scrapped the pork barrel program, which had a single noteworthy component – child feeding programs by the senators and congressmen. School-based child feeding was the only program in the whole pork barrel set up not sullied by corruption and it was scrapped when the pork barrel program was scrapped.

    Is the Duterte administration trying to establish the link between malnourished childhood and desperate, hopeless adulthood, which, in most cases, would lead to drug-dependent lives?

    I don’t know. But it should complement its relentless campaign against illegal drugs with a sustained and focused campaign to ease child malnutrition. Try, it must.

    This is a certainty. Today’s stunted child will be tomorrow’s drug addict. (30)


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