Opinion Piece by Dr. Chimimba David Phiri*
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a global crisis overwhelming health systems, devastating economies, and claiming more than 240, 000 lives worldwide (as of 4 May 2020) in four months. In Africa, the number of confirmed cases has risen to more than 34,610 in a matter of few weeks causing 1,517 deaths.
The increasing number of confirmed cases in Africa is of grave concern considering that the continent has fragile health systems and a high prevalence of HIV, TB, malnutrition and other linked health risks. On the other hand, malnutrition could weaken immune response in vulnerable populations, including the elderly, those with chronic health conditions and thus contribute to COVID19 related complications and deaths.
The Eastern African Subregion is no exception in observing growing trends of COVID 19 cases with a total of 2,887 confirmed cases registered, as of 4 May 2020, in nine countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, and Eritrea). In response, governments are taking serious measures including enforcement of some degree of ‘lockdown’, with limitation of public gatherings, the closing of restaurants and bars, shops and non-essential businesses. In most countries, schools have largely been closed, and citizens required, or strongly encouraged, to stay home to avoid catching or spreading the virus.
Looking at the countries in the region, one can see the serious measures being taken. For example, Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency while refraining from imposing a total lockdown, it has put limitations on movements to and from regional towns, and put in place a teleworking system for public service and companies. Similarly, Uganda has declared a nationwide shutdown as part of efforts to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak. Rwanda had extended its lockdown until 30 April 2020, while Eritrea imposed a 21-day national lockdown. The same applies to Kenya which has extended a nationwide partial lockdown and night-time curfew by 21 days where people will not be able to enter or exit the capital Nairobi and some coastal areas.
As a region prone to food insecurity and recurrent droughts, the COVID 19 pandemic brings with it an unprecedented challenge to food and nutrition security of many smallholder farmers, and population groups dependant on daily labour and movement for livelihood and income. Many urban dwellers in the region live in crowded conditions or work in the informal sector, mainly in wet markets, as street vendors - and depend on it for food; so lockdowns and other social distancing measures could pose major problems both for consumers and workers. The closure of schools means the disruption or shutdown of school meal programmes which are often the main source of regular meals available for vulnerable and at-risk children. It will also affect children with a very limited home diet or that due to the emergency will be more vulnerable due to the lack of nutritious food.
As part of measures to curb the spread of the virus, markets including farmer markets risk closure, if not already closed. This can reduce farmers’ ability to sell food and thus have a stable livelihood, and reduce the ability of consumers to access fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. Perishable items may not make it to market or consumers because of transportation restrictions. Difficulty in bringing food to the market owing to fewer items to buy, sell and trade; market closure due to illness and quarantine are also bottlenecks. Furthermore, road closures/blockages can slow down agricultural services, access to inputs, delivery of goods, and marketing, leading to loss of income and loss or accumulation of produce at farms. To avoid these drawbacks to the food supply chains, countries and key actors must strive to keep both the domestic food markets as well as global food trade going.
Furthermore, lack of information on market conditions (production, stocks, consumption, trade, prices) and uncoordinated policy interventions by countries, similar to the episode of the 2007-08 global food price crisis, is also a significant threat. Although disruptions in the food supply chain are minimal so far, challenges have been experienced in terms of logistics including food movement vis-à-vis movement restrictions and quarantine measures.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that the current situation in East Africa is exercabated by the on-going Desert Locus outbreak. In fact, hopper bands and new swarms of Desert Locusts are currently forming in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia.
With the onset of the rainy season in the larger part of Eastern Africa, the locust will breed even faster than before. And yet COVID 19 is hampering efforts to curb effects of the locust as it has affected the supply of pesticides, with delays experienced due to reduced manpower and the postponement of the delivery of purchased orders. To avoid food shortages, FAO and other development partners are sounding the bell to act now simultaneously on control of the Desert Locust and containment of COVID-19.
What can be done to reduce the likely impacts of COVID-19 on food and nutrition security?
To mitigate the possible devastation to livelihoods, countries need to put in place robust policies and strategies to support agricultural production increase and maintain critical supply chains, whilst ensuring the immediate food needs of vulnerable populations are met. The first step is to put in place lifesaving social protection schemes to protect the most vulnerable people by ensuring emergency food needs are met; adjusting and expanding social protection programmes; maintaining essential and lifesaving nutrition services; adjusting school meal programmes to continue delivering school meals even when schools are closed. Ethiopia, for example, has registered a good practice as it has taken measures to continue school feeding even if schools remain closed.
Given that the majority of the population in the subregion derive their livelihoods from the agricultural sector, countries need to ensure that farmers have access to agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers; livestock keepers, access to animal feed and medicines; and fish farmers, access to aquaculture inputs. Supporting the approaching production season is essential to avoid disruption of food supplies while protecting farmers and workers from COVID 19. This also requires keeping trade among countries open. To minimize the negative impact of the pandemic, governments should allow agriculture activities to continue running as an essential business.
A third and critical step is to strengthen policy advocacy efforts to alert governments on the impact of the protection measures on food and nutrition security. A lot can be learned from past experiences. In this regard, one crucial action is making use of existing tools that effectively record and analyse policy decisions and make policy information available to the public. FAO’s FAPDA (Food and agriculture policy decision analysis) tool was critical to responding to the 2007-2008 food crisis. Through FAPDA, FAO continues to collect, register, classify and finally analyse policy information. The 2007-08 global food price crisis triggered a wave of export restrictions by some countries, while others started importing food aggressively. This contributed to excessive price volatility, which was damaging for low-income food-deficit countries. In food crisis contexts, data collection and data sharing are essential to anticipate supply shocks and identify possible risks that may threaten food systems.
Lessons learnt from the COVID-19 can also inform policy and legislative measures related to strategic grain reserves/food banks to strengthen the country institutional capacity for emergency outbreak preparedness across the food value chain.
The final key recommendation is to develop instruments for countries to access resources from relevant multilateral and financial institutions. This entails identifying key funding institutions to ensure funds for agriculture production, maintaining food reserves, and keeping the food supply chain going to supplement budget allocation that is taken from development to the pandemic response.
Countries with existing humanitarian crises, like the Horn of Africa, are particularly exposed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is critical that donor countries ensure continued delivery of humanitarian and development assistance where food insecurity is already high. Finally, regional and cross country cooperation should be strengthened to find lasting solutions to the pandemic’s effect on livelihoods. All actors need to act now before the pandemic and other food security threats expose millions to hunger and malnutrition in Eastern Africa.
* Dr. Chimimba David Phiri is a Policy Economist and currently the FAO Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and Representative to the African Union and UNECA.