Will lack of food make COVID-19 a worse crisis in Africa?

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A rice farmer works in a field in northern Senegal. Farmers and those who process, transport, and sell food should be considered essential workers to ensure a steady food supply. Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

Call to Mom in Togo raises concerns about food in countries hit by COVID-19 – people are just as concerned about hunger as they are of the virus.

Oxfam staffer Laté Lawson-Lartego talks to his mother in Togo nearly every day. Most of these calls are just to check in with each other, and he asks about his 71-year-old mom’s health. “I ask about the news there, and I tell her about my kids,” Laté (as he prefers to be called) says. He hears the latest about his five siblings and their children, and other news from his home country.

In mid-March, one regular call was very different. Laté was worried about the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking in their native Mina language, mom filled him in. “That’s when I heard the government there was shutting down everything, and she was sounding panicked,” Laté says. “I started panicking, too …. I was concerned she did not have time to stock up on food, and she told me prices were going up. She said the fish imported from Ghana doubled in price because the border was closing.

“She was scared. If that price doubled, maybe all the other food prices would double also.”

Focus on food

Shaken by the call, Laté talked it over with his wife, Regina, in their home near Washington, DC, where he leads Oxfam America’s work on food systems. This program looks at ways to reduce inequality for small-scale farmers and others around the world (and here in the US) who grow, process, transport, and sell food to make decent living, and produce healthy food.

Smoked fish produced in Ghana is sold all over the country and in neighboring Togo – as long as transport routes and borders can remain open for the movement of food to markets. Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

The couple agreed they would continue to support the family and other people in need in Togo, and ensure his mother could get enough food and the medicine she needs while they stay in contact by phone and weather the pandemic in the US.

“We’re lucky,” Laté says about living in the Washington area. “We have to stay at home, but we can go to the supermarket and the pharmacy. But what about all the other people who have to work in the markets in Togo, other parts of West Africa and other countries? If the markets are closed, they don’t work, and they don’t eat. The situation will become dire for people who rely on local markets for food and income. And if farmers can’t grow crops, can’t transport their produce to markets, how will people eat?”

For people in towns and cities who buy food in open-air markets like this one in Senegal, it will be essential to provide food even when community members need to practice social distancing measures. Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

In the following days, Laté saw some of his concerns become reality in places like the main market place in Lomé, Togo, as well as in neighboring countries of Burkina Faso and Ghana. He saw news reports about violence in Kenya and struggles to get essential services in Zimbabwe. Most recently, the Economic Community of West African States shared concerns that there could be 50 million people in the region facing malnutrition by August. Furthermore, the Chief of the World Food Programmme, the UN body in charge of food assistance, issued warnings about hunger as COVID-19 spreads. As many as 265 million people could be affected globally. He calls it a “hunger pandemic.”

Possible solutions

Laté and others at Oxfam, as well as experts at theInternational Food Policy Research Institute and the UN Food and Agriculture Programme, are looking at how COVID-19 will affect the food supply in Africa and other less-developed areas of the world.

While countries in Europe and North America are closing most businesses and public places and requiring citizens to stay home, they are making exceptions for essential workers. Laté and his colleagues are recommending that countries most vulnerable to COVID-19—those with weak or barely existent health care systems and fragile economies—can also designate the people who grow, transport, process, and sell food as essential workers and ensure they can do their work safely. Each country should consult the organizations that represent these essential workers in the food supply system to recommend the best ways to do this safely.

“Chambers of Commerce, Farmer organizations, food networks, and many civil society organizations as well as Oxfam are well positioned to advise governments,” Laté says. “Governments should make sure that food trade is not interrupted, prices remain stable, and ensure poor and vulnerable people—including seniors, children, and students—have access to healthy and nutritious food.”

Some of the ideas Laté and others are proposing include:

Keep markets open: Rather than shutting down the open-air markets on which so many people depend for their food, countries should enable markets to continue operating with appropriate social distancing and protection measures in place. “This will enable the trade in food to continue, and allow shoppers in urban and rural areas to get the nutrition they need, and help farmers stay in business.”

A sign labels a plot of maize at a demonstration farm in Zimbabwe, where farmers are testing different varieties. During the COVID-19 pandemic it will be essential for the government and others to continue to assist farmers with training, and inputs like seeds and fertilizers, to ensure farmers can grow enough food. Brett Eloff/Oxfam America

Help for farmers and food workers: Governments need to designate food producers, transporters, and food processors as essential workers and continue to provide assistance to farmers using digital technology where possible and utilizing other social distancing measures to keep people safe.

“Governments need to continue to provide all the subsidized inputs—such as fertilizers and seeds—in the safest possible manner that will not interrupt the planting season to avoid food shortages and hunger,” Laté says. Essential workers in these industries will need safe workplaces. Governments and companies must fulfill their obligation to provide them.

Don’t ban exports: Shutting down trade between countries to control the spread of the virus and preserve the supply of food in countries may backfire. It could drive up prices and provoke panic buying and hoarding. “If governments close borders,” Laté says, “they need to allow for essential goods and business, including the movement of food, to continue.”

Consider the most vulnerable: Small-scale farmers are really the backbone of the global supply of food, and women farmers who do most of the work are routinely overlooked when training, financial resources, and other benefits are available. Likewise, when governments and aid groups consider ways to help provide money and food for people, they need to ensure it goes to women-headed households, elderly, children, and others who might otherwise be overlooked.

“We will need to ensure that all people, especially women and non-binary citizens, can get the same level of food and other emergency assistance,” he says.

“A lot of people are just as scared of dying of hunger as they are of COVID-19,” Laté points out. “If we want people to respect the social-distancing policies imposed by the authorities, we need to also give them the confidence that they can meet their basic daily needs. Helping farmers and others who produce food in developing countries will help ensure people will get the nutrition they need to get through the crisis.”

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