COVID-19 is expected to be a key driver of acute food insecurity
May 25, 2020
COVID-19 will double the number of people suffering from a food crisis, pushing it to 265 million, estimates the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Announced alongside the release of the Global Report on Food Crises, by various partners including WFP, figures show that taking swift action is vital. Pre-existing food crises will worsen dramatically due to the pandemic, as people in some of the poorest countries will have to face the economic consequences of lockdown if not the virus itself.
“The 55 countries and territories that are home to 135 million acutely food-insecure people in need of urgent humanitarian food and nutrition assistance are the most vulnerable to the consequences of this pandemic as they have very limited or no capacity to cope with either the health or socioeconomic aspects of the shock,” the report reads.
Last year, food-insecure people were in countries affected by conflict (77 million people), climate change (34 million) and economic crises (24 million), with the 10 worst food crises in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti. South Sudan had 61% of its population in a state of food crisis or worse, followed by Sudan, Yemen, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Syrian Arab Republic and Haiti (at least 35%).
“COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage,” WFP’s chief economist Arif Husain said. “Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock–like COVID-19–to push them over the edge.” WFP suggests that collective action can mitigate the impacts and that food assistance programs have to be maintained.
In a recent letter sent to world leaders, signatories working in the food industry from researchers to farmers and multinationals such as Danone, Nestlé and Unilever, asked “to design COVID-19 response measures that minimise the risks of global and regional food security crises in coming months.” They highlighted three actions: maintain open trade, ensure access to nutritious and affordable food for all, and sow seeds of recovery for people and the planet.
The COVID-19 pandemic effects on food insecurity in rich and poor countries are two starkly different by connected realities. Labor shortages could disrupt the production and processing of labor-intensive crops, especially in vulnerable countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Rural areas in those countries will be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to pandemic,” says Dr Cedric Habiyaremye, research associate at Washington State University and agricultural entrepreneur. “This is the place where a lot of people depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing, or pastoralism. If they become ill or constrained by restrictions on movement or activity, they will be prevented from working their land, caring for their animals, going fishing, curbing their productive capacities and hindering them from selling their produce and getting seeds and supplies. It will be hard for them to become self-reliant and they will have no other choice than to leave their farms in search for assistance.”
“Not only will the pandemic impact rural peoples’ livelihoods (and therefore demand for food), but it will also create barriers to accessing food, by restricting mobility and creating higher costs of doing business due to the tightening of credit. Relatively few people in Africa can work at home. If you live in the countryside, you can grow your food. But in a city, what are people going to do if they are hungry, or they are poor? They do not have much in the way of savings, and they cannot work during a lockdown.”
However, no country or continent is immune. Areas to be impacted also includes countries that rely heavily on food imports, such as Small Islands Developing States and countries that depend on other primary exports like oil.
Civil society can play a role by checking the impact of governments’ decisions on the citizens. “It is essential to monitor food prices and markets and to transparently disseminate information,” Dr Habiyaremye explains. “Governments at all levels should recognize agricultural food system operations and research as essential and provide everyone involved with the protection and support that they need to continue to work, following safety and health protocols.” The Government of Rwanda, for example, has put in place a COVID-19 Food Assistance Program. It is supported by local companies, private individuals and local banks, through the Rwandan Private Sector Federation supporting Government initiatives.
On the other hand, reformed agriculture and food as a human right may be in the future post-COVID. “This crisis represents a dramatic opportunity to reimagine what our society and economy could be if organized on different terms,” Dr Habiyaremye adds. “This an opportunity to reflect on the transformation needed if we want to develop a food system that nourishes all people, regenerates, and sustains the environment, and enables the resilience and flourishing of culture and community.”
*Freelance reporter, Brussels