Urban household food security and COVID-19 governance responses in South Africa

Mary Caesar

The coronavirus is spreading across South Africa. Public health experts advise physical distancing and other mitigating measures to reduce time residents spent in public spaces, including closing non-essential work places and staying at and working from home, if possible. The national government’s decision to impose a 21-day lockdown, announced on March 24 by President Ramaphosa is part of these public health mitigation measures.

Ramaphosa also convened a COVID-19 Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC).   IMCs are high-level government and political committees to facilitate efficient and effective service delivery with a very specific purpose that is deemed to require the dedicated attention of a certain team of ministers and its mandate is limited to the matter that they are established to execute. As the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent, he streamlined the COVID-19 governance mechanisms and established the National COVID-19 National Command Council (NCCC) under his direct leadership, as “an integrated and coordinated disaster management mechanism [to] focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of this virus.”   The NCCC includes members of the IMC and consults with other government ministers and sub-national elected officials.

Despite the government’s commitment to mobilize all public, private and civil society actors to play their part, the involvement of these non-state actors, including food security experts, is unclear. While these COVID-19 responses are crucial to halt the spread of this contagious virus and flatten the curve, they will inevitably impact the urban food system and, together with that, the food security status of households. The risk for vulnerable populations with food insecurity is dire. It is therefore imperative that COVID-19 governance institutions take cognizance of urban food security experience and include food security experts to participate in short- to medium-term pandemic, planning, mitigation, and response.

The duration of the lockdown is uncertain and urban household food security should be a critical component COVID-19 responses. Nationally, about 20% of households have inadequate or severe lack of access to food In urban areas, 28% of households are at risk of hunger and 26% are already experiencing hunger). In the City of Cape Town, only 46% of households were food secure while 36% were severely food insecure. In addition, 18% of households experienced some degree of food insecurity. The 2018 General Household Survey confirmed that more households in Cape Town had adequate access to food (72%) and that 21% experienced inadequate access to food. In particular, households in informal urban areas are among the most vulnerable to food insecurity.

The key drivers of household food security are socio-economic status, i.e. income, employment status and food expenditure. Households with a cash income from wages are also more likely to be food secure than households with non-wage income, including households that receive social assistance. In addition, a household is more likely to be food secure if adult members are self-employed or working full-time as opposed to part-time employment, pensioned or unemployed. Any changes in employment status present threats that hamper access cash and, as such, are critical hazards to urban household food security. Other household food security hazards include loss or reduced employment for a household member; reduced income of a household member; theft of money and food; violence; and serious illness of a household member.

A number of lockdown regulations directly affect people’s ability to access affordable food. Firstly, food-related services and businesses, including supermarkets and spaza shops, were designated essential services and continue to operate. While urban households use a range of food sources, supermarkets and small shops (corner stores) are the dominant sources. However, access to informal food sources is already severely restricted. Spaza shops, one of the most important informal food sources, remain open since they generally conduct business in a fixed structure. Open air food markets, including street food vendors and markets were initially prohibited from operating but recognizing the economic and food security effects on households in low-income urban areas, the government relaxed regulations to allow some street vendors to re-open.

Secondly, food price hikes during and after the lockdown are inevitable. The hikes are generally the result of panic buying, supply chain interruptions, and long-term economic survival of businesses. To mitigate the adverse impact on consumers and to maintain an adequate supply of goods, the government adopted consumer protection measures. In addition, the National Consumer Commission and the Competition Commission launched an investigation into 30 retailers, including two supermarket chain stores (Spar and Pick ‘n Pay) accused of excessive price hikes.

We know enough about urban household food security, however, to understand that COVID-19 responses will affect food security status. Food security experts can play an important role and the NCCC response should therefore be informed by food security experts.

Article by: Mary Caesar (Queen Elizabeth Advanced Scholars (QES-AS) Early Career Scholar, Balsillie School of International Affairs)

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