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Pandemic: Addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on Food Crises

As most countries work frantically to contain the spread of COVID-19 within their borders, others are looking further ahead at the impacts of the pandemic. A recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sets out the effect of this novel coronavirus on global food security, addressing risk factors in a $110 million USD plan to scale existing humanitarian activities. With over 4 million confirmed cases and 279,000 deaths to date, the virus infects all nations indiscriminately, but collateral damage to livelihoods will be most intensely felt in current high-risk areas.

Economies, politics, communities, families- all stand to suffer from this infectious respiratory disease that spread from central China in late 2019. Areas in less developed countries, experiencing conflict, political and economic turbulence, pressure from climate change and inmigration, malnutrition and deficient social services were amongst the last to be hit. Now, they face the greatest challenge in mitigating the illnesses spread whilst maintaining peace and prosperity amongst their people.

More lives are at stake than ever before. Populations in less affluent areas have risen steeply over the past decade, with the provision of basic needs struggling to keep pace. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises that will be released later this year is expected to show a marked rise in the number of acutely food insecure people from 2019 levels. This is the first sign of COVID-19’s affront on agriculture, however related issues will continue for years after the disease subsides.

To project the full consequences on farmers and markets, experts are looking back at comparable prior events. When the Ebola virus disease (EVD) struck West Africa in 2014, containment measures forced markets to close, disrupting trade flows and causing food prices to rise. In Liberia, 47 percent of farmers were unable to work their land as a direct result. When family members passed away, relatives were left particularly vulnerable, and faltering agricultural produce led countries to introduce policies such as tariffs and export bans. A positive feedback loop sprang up, the effects of which were anything but positive- civil unrest, price spikes, extremist movements and more. COVID-19 may see much the same occur. Postponements to elections can undermine already weak democratic systems, leading to poor governance when civilians most need support.

In 2007–2008, the number of malnourished people increased by 115 million. This global food crisis was the largest of the past two decades, the impacts of which were both dramatic and rapid to emerge. Trade flows amplified the damage and net buyers of food including island nations, conflict-torn countries and rice-importing areas of West Africa stood with the most to lose. When COVID-19 shut down international produce distribution chains, similar results were witnessed.

Above all, consumer views play a critical role. The H1N1 influenza pandemic caused major cuts in the demand for pork meat as a result of widespread paranoia. Avian influenza in 2005–2006 set back demand for poultry through much the same means. Foodstuffs seen as ‘at risk’ or originating from virus hotspots will have the greatest obstacles to overcome in continuing normal operations. COVID-19 will force many subsistence farmers to adapt at speed as the situation demands.

In light of this, the FAO’s approach is holistically inclined: bolstering extant measures in at-risk areas with improved impact assessment and increased community programming. Partnering with the World Food Programme (WFP) and other stakeholders, it will develop a global data facility to map the unfolding crisis in humanitarian grades.

The goal is to work closely with smallholders to boost production and tie down prices of key commodities, investing $60 million USD to this end. Beyond that, there are plans to ensure continuity in markets and trade, focusing on provision of goods to vulnerable urban areas. Throughout is the expected awareness-raising protocol regarding food safety and precautions, sensitizing workers to reduce the threat of transmission.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock calls this “a great step forward for all countries in safeguarding the welfare of their citizens. The FAO have performed admirably under challenging conditions and certainly delivered with this concrete plan that merits urgent adoption by member states.” Few could doubt it is a major advance amidst struggling government and non-governmental responses.

The right of social service adopted by the universal declaration includes receiving adequate food for sustenance. With the widespread disturbance that COVID-19 has caused, this tenant of humanity has fallen under threat. Never-the-less, this latest statement from the FAO can set us all somewhat at ease in knowing that underprivileged persons are receiving much-needed support. As the FAO’s motto states, “saving livelihoods saves lives.” Let us all hope that as few as possible of either are lost in the months to come.

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