COVID-19 brings a new crisis for hungry people. Here’s how Oxfam and partners are responding to the rising number of families facing food insecurity around the world.
Despite several years of dry weather, Muhubo Mohamed Hassen and her family were surviving in the arid Somali region of Ethiopia through a combination of growing sorghum, raising cows and sheep, and trading milk. But then swarms of locusts destroyed their crop, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area.
“Now there is no market for the animals and crops these days,” Hassen says. “We used to collect milk from the rural areas and sell in the towns and villages, but now we can’t go there as people fear coronavirus.” Unable to look for any other work as farm laborers, Hassen’s family of nine faces a difficult future. “This is going to be the hardest time in our lives,” she says.
Hassen and her family are not the only ones facing difficult times right now. COVID-19 has hit poor communities severely. Those living in poverty—many in conflict zones—are the most vulnerable. Farmers and workers, many who can’t eat without a daily wage, have fallen immediately into crisis as lockdowns prevent the movement of goods and shut down markets.
In 2019, UN agencies estimated that 821 million people were food insecure—short on food and going to bed hungry. About 149 million of them were at a “crisis level” of hunger, meaning that they suffer from serious malnutrition. This year, the World Food Programme predicts this number will increase by more than 80 percent to 270 million.
Conflict areas most vulnerable
People living in areas affected by conflict are facing the most serious levels of hunger, in some cases verging on famine. South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and areas along the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the Sahel region of West Africa are among the most vulnerable, according to the Famine Early Warning System Network. In these countries Oxfam is providing assistance to people affected by fighting as well as by the pandemic, in the form of clean water, soap, and the promotion of good hygiene to avoid disease, and in some cases emergency food or cash (where there are functioning markets) to help people buy food and meet other important needs.
Ultimately, helping farmers is crucial to fighting hunger. Hassen and her family are among 11,000 farmers receiving seeds, tools, and cash—$100 over two months—from Oxfam to help them plant crops and survive the lean growing season. It is part of Oxfam’s global effort to assist 14 million people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 60 countries. With help from our supporters, we intend to prevent as many people as we can from falling into poverty and hunger. Aid designed to help farmers grow food, and assist others to buy it, will help people weather the coronavirus crisis.
Since March 2020 Oxfam has worked with 581 partners to reach 11.3 million people in more than 60 countries and the US to prevent the spread of the disease in vulnerable communities and support people’s basic food needs and livelihoods. Our goal is to reach 14 million people. For more details about Oxfam’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Coronavirus crisis: How to help.
Key elements in Oxfam’s fight against pandemic hunger
- Working with women: Despite making up about half the agricultural workforce in developing countries, women farmers face discrimination in land rights, wages, access to finance, and training. Women are more likely to suffer food insecurity than men, and they are most vulnerable in emergencies. Oxfam and our partners support initiatives that help women farmers get access to the same resources as men, helping them produce more food and defend their rights to land and other key resources they need to feed their families. When identifying recipients for emergency aid, we prioritize vulnerable women-headed households.
- Local partners: Oxfam prioritizes working with local and national partners because they can respond faster in emergencies and are better informed about needs and best ways to help people. These factors are more important than ever in the time of COVID-19, when moving people and aid any distance has proven to be time-consuming or even impossible. Helping our partners find the resources they need to do their work is critical.
- Global advocacy: Oxfam and our partners are calling on governments to fully fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal and to support better and more sustainable ways of producing the food the world needs. Governments and the UN must also promote women’s participation and leadership in decisions concerning agriculture. For example, we’re supporting an initiative in West Africa that encourages members of parliament across the region to enact better policies to help women farmers. Oxfam is also urging governments to cancel the debt of poor countries to free up resources that can help people struggling to survive the pandemic. Governments also must support the UN’s call for a global cease-fire, as well as tackle the climate crisis, which is having a direct impact on the world’s ability to produce food.