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COVID-19 could exacerbate food insecurity for over 40 million people in the southern African region

By Lauren Hartnett

Millions of people in Southern Africa are at risk of increased hunger and poverty due to the double threat of Coronavirus and consecutive climatic shocks, warned Oxfam today.

More than 17 million people across Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa are already food insecure due to last year’s drought-ravaged agriculture season. Around 40% of the population in the region already live in extreme poverty and the World Food Program says that food prices are now at a five-year high.

Zambia, considered a regional bread basket, was already grappling with climate shocks, an energy deficit and arguably the highest debt in the region prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Today, nearly two million Zambians are facing acute food and water insecurity, high chronic malnutrition livestock diseases, and crop destruction caused by dry spells and flash floods.

Monica Chime, a Zambian farmer from Sinazongwe, bordering Zimbabwe said, “Life is now very difficult because we are always hungry. It is not just us. Even people from Zimbabwe, daily they cross Kafwambila border to exchange their goats and cows for a small bag of maize flour. To complicate matters, we recently experienced flash floods that destroyed our crops and homes.”

The last decade has seen the region hit by consecutive climate disasters that have left over 35 million people food and nutrition insecure. Since 2004 around 15 million people face the risk of hunger each year. In 2015/16 the El Nino-induced drought left nearly 40 million people without enough food. In 2019, Cyclone Idai left over 8.7 million in need of food and water. Excepting South Africa, over 60% of people in the region depend on small scale farming to meet their basic needs and now the coronavirus threatens to deny them the chance to recover from five consecutive years of climate disasters.

"As a farmer, I need to move around looking for markets, interact with agriculture extension officers and buy seeds and fertilizer. Now with the lockdown, it's already a nightmare for most of us farmers to access markets and procure inputs for the upcoming winter cropping season," said Mary Chinembiri, a smallholder farmer from Zimbabwe.

Nellie Nyangwa, Oxfam’s Southern Africa Regional Director said: “In the region, the pandemic is not only a public health issue, but it is also a food security issue as restrictions on movement within and across borders have slowed food systems and impacted supply chains. Many have also lost their jobs and with rising food prices, this means many more people will go hungry.”

Most countries in the region also do not have adequate social protections in place for the most vulnerable people even before the pandemic.

Seven out of ten people across sub-Saharan Africa work in the informal sector with little or no employment benefits. Even in South Africa, which is the least dependent on the informal sector, one in six workers are informally employed.

Across the continent, only 17.8% of workers are covered by social protection schemes. Only South Africa and Zimbabwe have an Unemployment Insurance Fund and National Social Security Fund respectively for formal workers. Even where there are social stimulus packages in place, like South Africa’s 500 billion Rand package, the most vulnerable people are being left out. South Africa has more than 4 million migrants and refugees and none of them are eligible for relief under this package. Only a small percentage of working refugees have access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

“Many European, North American and Asian countries were able to balance the terrifying debate about “the cure being worse than the disease” because they could afford to fund good public health, unemployment and social benefits, food chains and business relief packages,” said Tsitsi Magaza, Oxfam’s Southern Africa Humanitarian Manager.

“But for many poor people across southern Africa that debate has become a daily life-or-death reality because they have no access to food and other basic needs,” she said. “The Covid-19 pandemic is threatening to wipe out the gains we have made in combating hunger and poverty in the region.”

“With food and other essential needs prices going up, many smallholder farmers have resorted to negative coping mechanism such as selling productive assets to survive. The pandemic is not only making the vulnerable households go hungry but poorer as well,” adds Nyangwa.

“Urgent action by affected governments and donors is needed to help vulnerable households through multi-purpose cash transfer grants that would enable them to buy food, seeds and fertilizers to grow food again. Governments must also subsidize farm inputs, invest but also strengthen national and community resilience in the wake of increased climatic shocks”.

ENDS

Notes to the editors

  • In the region, Oxfam has long-term development and humanitarian programs in Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  • In response to the pandemic in the region, Oxfam programs in the region have stepped up their work on hygiene promotion, targeting the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Oxfam is currently reaching more than 2 million people including with the provision of water and hygiene protection materials and hygiene promotion campaigns. Oxfam has also provided hygiene promotion and protection materials for public facilities such as hospitals and markets.
  • At time of publishing, there are now approximately 26 250 confirmed cases in the region.
  • South Africa and Zimbabwe are under lockdown while most countries in the region are under partial lockdown or there is restricted movements and social distancing protective measure are being enforced in one way or the other.

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