Hunger must not be a consequence of the epidemic!

Even though COVID-19 poses a threat to the health of humanity, the reaction to the pandemic must not cause more suffering than the disease itself. This is particularly relevant for poor developing countries!

 

Burkina-Faso. © Michael Jooß, GIZ

Michael Brüntrup

Dr Michael Brüntrup is a senior researcher at the German Development Institute (DIE) in the field of Agricultural and Food Security with focus on sub-Saharan Africa

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik

For high-income countries, the current pandemic is mainly a public health crisis. It is also a crisis of the economy, the labour market, social life, schools and child care as well as the relationship between citizen and state. But there is one kind of crisis that it is not (yet): A crisis of food security and by extension a crisis for life.

If people are unemployed or lose their income, minimum incomes are usually guaranteed by the state in these countries. The prices for food are and remain low, particularly in relation to income. However, even these rich countries are beginning to see the first signs of a spill over from the health sector into the food sector. This is reflected in the long lines at food banks, local fruit and vegetables becoming more expensive due to the lack of harvest workers, supply bottlenecks at borders and rising prices for products from supply chains affected by the coronavirus. The decline in the consumption of high-quality food in exchange for cheap and filling food in poorer and even average-income households and the end to school dinners are a sign of the stress on the food systems – even in Germany!

 

Poor countries are also experiencing all of these problems but the impact of the corona crisis for food security is much more serious there. The (preliminary) estimates of various organisations are shocking: the report State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) prepared by several UN organisations under the leadership of the FAO estimates that another 83 to 132 million people could become affected by famine as a result of the pandemic. OXFAM warns in its report “The Hunger Virus“ that up to 12,000 more people could die of hunger each day by the end of 2020. UNICEF and Save the Children fear that the number of children who live in poor households around the world will rise by 117 million to 700 million children by the end of the year. The lockdown measures and their economic effects have disastrous consequences, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

 

Market scenes in Addis Ababa/Ethiopia: Lockdown measures affect the urban population most, which is dependent on informal work. © Thomas Imo, GIZ
Market scenes in Addis Ababa/Ethiopia: Lockdown measures affect the urban population most, which is dependent on informal work. © Thomas Imo, GIZ

However, these are only the short-term consequences of the pandemic. They have the biggest impact on lower income groups in urban areas due to the loss of jobs, loss of remittance and particularly the decline in occasional jobs in the informal sector. These households have little money saved, often live hand to mouth and are now dependent on solidarity from neighbours and family or - if available - on government transfers. Luckily, production of the most important basic foods remains robust around the world according to several estimates. Since the demand for high-quality foods in particular is declining, the global agricultural prices have in fact fallen. However, some areas are also seeing a rapid increase in prices, particularly if the local, regional and global food chains are disrupted or impaired as a result of the pandemic. Even though there is usually enough food available, products become backed up in the market due to politically mandated interruptions to supply chains. As a result, prices at the producers fall, not enough products are available for consumers and prices rise. People who live in the countryside with their own farms or live close to producers are in a better position to cope in the short term, at least with this crisis. But most chronically poor people live in the countryside and are small-scale farmers who often have to buy additional food to survive.

 

In the longer term, the consequences of the crisis are on the verge of shifting to the rural areas. The low prices and impaired agricultural supply chains reduce the production incentives and diminish rural incomes. If the market restrictions due to corona continue, the supply of food to consumers will also suffer more due to a supply shortage. Where government transfer and investment programmes are currently helping, falling tax revenue will likely force the governments to focus the relief efforts on more politically relevant urban regions.

 

Development cooperation should specifically incorporate resilience in its programmes and plan transitions between development and crises modes.

 

In the worst-case scenario, the negative “side effects” of measures to tackle the corona pandemic could prove worse for food security than the main effects of the crisis. In order to mitigate the impact of these effects, governments and development cooperation should take the following into account when tackling the coronavirus in these countries:

 

  1. Each lockdown should be carefully analysed to examine the effects on food security. These must be accompanied by targeted measures that support the production and supply of food. It can be concluded more often than in the global North that individual measures (even with realistic support measures) lead to greater damage to nutrition and health than the further spread of the coronavirus. They should be scrapped or used as sparingly as possible.
  2. Development cooperation contributions should particularly address information, health and hygiene in the short term and also include money and food transfers as well as social and employment programmes where necessary. Economic structures and players should be protected and supported to the greatest extent possible, for example, by establishing local structures to increase or stabilise production or by maintaining and expanding market structures.
  3. The importance of agriculture as a fallback option in the corona crisis, for other epidemics but also for many other societal and individual risks should be more clearly recognised. The resilience of a majority of households can be enhanced by supporting sustainable agricultural systems that have to be adjusted to different types of households, for example by kitchen gardening, low-input agriculture and semi-professional cultivation systems. Broad-based economic growth remains a further priority of enhanced resilience. The food sector as the most important industry in poor countries with great quantitative and qualitative growth prospects is an essential area of funding.

 

However, it is important to look not only at the corona crisis but at other crises that are spreading in developing countries. Climate-related crises (such as droughts) or the current plague of locusts in East Africa, for example, are damaging local agriculture and, as a result, food security; non-agricultural income and access to the global agricultural market are therefore important options. This market access must be able to grow in the long term; only using it in an emergency does not work, which is why open and active agricultural markets are important even after the pandemic. Research has shown that comprehensive resilience can be best achieved by diversity (particularly in terms of income and the supply of food from local and global supply chains), creating reserves, social security systems and insurance. Development cooperation should specifically incorporate resilience to various risks in its programmes and plan transitions between development and crises modes (contingency planning).

 

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