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Corona exacerbates existing crises through conflict, climate, hunger and locusts in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. To face these challenges, all of these crises need to be captured in their regional context.
In East Africa and the Horn of Africa, several crises are currently overlapping. Some of them originated a long time ago, while new ones recently emerged. Conflict and war, along with climate events such as droughts, have been causing major supply shortages in the region for quite some time. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) has already declared its highest levels of supply crises for Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, South Sudan and Sudan, with a total of about 27.3 million people affected as early as 2019.
Recently, the climatic event of the ‘Indian Ocean Drop’ (IOD) has been happening more frequently, causing high humidity and flooding. Along with the war and the collapse of governmental functions in Yemen, it gave rise to an unusually large locust population in 2018, which was able to spread for a long time without countermeasures. By June 2019, it managed to spread all the way to East Africa and was again able to multiply massively in that region during the rainy season starting in October 2019
Currently there are several hundred of these swarms, which in Kenya reached about the size of the Saarland, and they are expected to increase 500-fold by June 2020.
In the midst of this crisis situation, Covid-19 is now also added into the mix. There is uncertainty about the exact spread at the Horn and in East Africa due to fewer tests, but the official numbers are increasing and the number of unreported cases is probably high. The medical infrastructure is underdeveloped in the entire region, and health care is virtually non-existent in Somalia, where only 0.028 doctors are available per 1000 inhabitants. In Ethiopia it is 0.1 and in Kenya it is just under 0.2 (for comparison: in Germany it is 4.2). To contain income and health crises in general, social security networks are almost exclusively regulated by the family and social groups, but not guaranteed by the state.
Crisis measures so far limited to individual crises an partly conflicting
Measures of the current crisis response tended to focus on individual crises and are limited in scope. Recent responses to contain Covid-19 are in some cases actually fuelling crises. The states of the region are reacting to Covid-19 like other countries: in some cases they are increasing health capacities, such as new clinics in Ethiopia, and are responding by establishing hygiene rules. However, the latter are often only possible to a limited extent due to poor water supply connections. Like other countries around the world, the countries in the Horn and East Africa also use border closures, travel and exit restrictions and lockdowns. However, it is precisely these measures that make immediate food supplies and locust control more difficult, which in turn leads to further food shortages. Only Kenya and Ethiopia have set up their own granaries as a precautionary approach.
The current simultaneous, intensifying individual crises affect different population groups at different times in different ways, which requires flexible solutions, especially when it comes to the differences between town and country. Covid-19 and the measures being taken to contain the virus will first and most quickly affect the politically more accessible population in the cities. This is where most of the people live, who have to secure their survival as day labourers or through casual work. They are particularly hard hit by the initial restrictions, as they are unable to generate income, build up long-term food reserves and provide for their families. However, in urban centres the access of aid supplies to the suffering population is generally easier than in the countryside – even if the market connection to rural producers may be disrupted by the coronavirus epidemic due to limited mobility. In some countries, the urban population, which has no income due to Covid-19 restrictions and is not supplied by the government, is moving to the countryside to be cared for by relatives. If the next harvest is destroyed by locusts, the rural population and parts of the urban population will be dependent on food supplies while being in areas that are difficult to access.
The other heavily affected group are refugees: In East Africa and the Horn of Africa, more than 9.5 million people are internally displaced; 4.6 million are in refugee camps in the region. These groups and the poor population living in cramped conditions are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, although the former are supplied with aid by external stakeholders for the most part, while urban day labourers often depend on government supplies. In Kenya, the tense situation and the repressive curfew enforcement have led to unrest and deaths in recent weeks.
Rural population: loss of income due to locusts with difficult access to agricultural markets due to Covid-19
Lower rural population density and subsistence farming tend to make the population less vulnerable to health and supply risks than urban dwellers. However, the majority of farmers are net consumers of food, i.e. they not only produce but also consume agricultural products. This means that they are not only affected by price increases and supply bottlenecks for food but also for seeds and fodder, which can be caused by locusts or by border closures and mobility restrictions.
Locust losses varied regionally in 2019: So far, last year’s rather good harvest is still protecting against food shortages, but it may change with the upcoming harvest. In Somalia, for example, it is believed that the forthcoming harvest, which is predicted to be very good, is at risk of destruction by locusts if they migrate further south. In Ethiopia, there is concern about the coming harvest in eastern Oromiya. Due to favourable wind conditions, no further spread of locusts is expected for Uganda and Kenya for now.
The various crises are subject to different dynamics. Therefore, expertise on conflicts, climate, epidemiology, trade, agricultural markets and pest developments should be compiled in a specific regional context.
In addition to all the well-known and often proposed approaches for all the individual crises, the current strategies must involve rapid measures adapted to individual risks – taking into account the simultaneous occurrence of all crises. This is where we can learn from the African experience of the 2014 Ebola crisis, but also from current approaches in other regions that combine security of supply and health protection. For market-relevant approaches, the experience from the agricultural price crisis of 2007/08 also helps.
Most countries in the region import food. In most cases the most important trading partners do not come from their own region, but rather from Asia (India, Malaysia, Indonesia). These international imports of goods must thus be secured despite coronavirus-related border closures, as the African Union also reaffirmed in a joint declaration with the FAO on food security. Delays in trade due to Covid-19 responses like increased border controls should also be avoided. Easing of import requirements is therefore important now: for example, customs duties on food and feed products or even seeds and insecticides should be suspended for the time being. Procedures for simplified customs clearance such as electronic certificates should also be used and should be supported internationally.
In terms of domestic travel and transport restrictions that cut off markets from production locations, the Ebola crisis showed that setting up new collective collection points for food transfer was extremely helpful. As a result, only a small number of PPE-protected people were involved in trade. The distribution of ‘hygiene kits’ and education on protection of farmers and those involved in the trade before the periods of harvesting and distribution also supported the supply. High priority must be given to sanitary facilities and water supply to ensure that hygiene measures can be implemented properly. The workers employed to control locusts should also be mobile, but protected against disease.
In the long term, regional alert systems and precautionary concepts are to be established
In the cities, the main concern is to support the less protected day labourers, i.e. to improve social measures. The connection to the rural areas supplying the food must also be supported. IT-based systems may also be able to provide information on the price, quantity and availability of food via mobile phones or radio. Furthermore, government agencies could take over the purchase and distribution of food, thereby simultaneously absorbing the disrupted connection of producers and supplying the cities.
East Africa and the Horn are pioneers in cashless payment systems, which could be used for the distribution of financial aid for the population affected by the Covid-19 quarantine.
Ideas for regional prevention concepts have existed for quite some time, but so far they have only been used in other regions of Africa and even there only to a limited extent – for example, the ‘West Africa Regional Food Security Reserve’, which is also supported by the G20. It is intended to compensate for the costs incurred by individual states for usually expensive stockpiling and the varying degrees of vulnerabilities to natural disasters. Another approach would be joint insurance concepts such as the ‘African Risk Capacity’ (ARC). So far, however, these types of concepts have been limited by scarcely available precautionary strategies at national level. Ethiopia and Kenya are the only two countries pursuing reserve approaches in the Horn.
The regional organisation IGAD could provide coordination for all crises: it has proven to be fundamental for the Covid-19 information supply of the region. It collects and publishes infection figures from the individual countries. It also tracks the spread of the locust plague and, alongside FAO, publishes information on the state of the regional food supply. The regional organisation is particularly committed to data exchange and early warning mechanisms. To accomplish this task, it depends on the cooperation and support of the member states. Political decisions on agricultural policy and food reserves be made by the member states.
In contrast to the global agricultural price and supply crisis of 2008, when many of the world’s major agricultural exporting countries restricted agricultural exports and thus inflated prices, international organisations such as the WTO, G20 and the AU have now committed themselves early on to free agricultural trade. Since then, fewer trade restrictions have been observed. It is important to continue to safeguard this strategy, even if borders are closed due to health concerns. In Kenya and Uganda, for example, Russia and Thailand are among the top 10 sourcing countries for food imports and thus countries that are currently using export restrictions to secure their own supplies. Kenya and Uganda in particular trade food with each other and should thus secure this supply path.
Trade in goods to and from East Africa and the Horn of Africa is also currently reduced. Djibouti, for example, the port that handles goods traffic for Ethiopia, is currently only operating with small staff due to Covid-19. Since the international community lacks the power to enforce dismantling of Covid-19-related trade barriers, regular public criticism of trade-restrictive measures and pointing out self-destructive effects of limited agricultural exports is necessary. In the medium term, this measure may even cause bottlenecks in the country that limits the exports. At first, the quantity of food is increasing domestically and prices are dropping.
This reduces the incentive to produce for the longer-term supply. Finally, it incites smuggling in order to sell food outside the country at higher prices. In addition to open trade, it should also be possible to distribute food aid as well as seeds, insecticides and animal feed quickly despite the current slowdown in border controls. To this end, and for trade support in general, all pragmatic measures to ease trade, such as the option of electronic documents, should be exploited.
In order to avoid the next breakout of locust populations, expected by June, rapid assistance is needed, which must be adapted to the generational form of locusts that vary locally at different times. In the beginning, they can be fought off mechanically, for example by collecting them manually, but it requires great mobility of the workers who also need to be protected. Later generation that are airborne can only be combated with insecticides and technical equipment in the form of helicopters or drones. Free imports must also be guaranteed for these items, and affiliated trained and protected workers must be able to travel.
However, all regional and international approaches can only be successful if there are answers to the longer-term problem of climate change and when there is confidence in the political measures, especially in the affected region.
Especially in countries where the population did not trust the government even before the pandemic, where freedom of the press was restricted, social security systems were not in place and critical infrastructure was not developed, it becomes all the more difficult to enforce restrictions in everyday life such as curfews. It is particularly tough since at the same time hardly any support from the state can be expected. When several crises overlap, it can further fuel their already risky escalation.