In spite of the fact that the total effect of COVID-19 pandemic, both at the short- and long-term on food security is difficult to foretell, particularly at this early point of time, some risk factors can still be spotted out.
Lessons from previous pandemics or similar crises indicate that food security could be rapidly and dramatically affected, particularly in developing and fragile countries, within them, the most vulnerable populations have a lot to suffer. While the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating lives, public health systems, livelihoods and economies all over the world, populations living in food crisis contexts are particularly exposed to dire consequences.
Communities with high prevalence of food crisis, such as those areas where a large share of the population is acutely food insecure and in need of urgent humanitarian action, as a result of a significant shock and where the government requires external assistance to cope with the impact of a shock on food security and nutrition should be properly monitored. The main drivers of food crises can be classified into three broad categories: conflict and insecurity; weather extremes and natural hazards; and economic shocks.
The 2019 edition of the Global Report on Food Crisis indicated that, in 2018 about 113 million persons were faced with severe levels of acute food insecurity in 53 countries and territories considered to be in food crisis. Even so, future projections are expected to show a further rise in the number of people that were acutely food insecure because of the COVID- 19 global pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic risks further escalating these figures, with likely significant rises in humanitarian needs and food insecurity as a consequence of the pandemic itself and of some of the containment efforts. Evidence of the potential impact on number of food insecure people can be inferred by observing what occurred in previous crises. For instance, during the food prices crisis in 2007–2008, the significant growth in world food prices increased the number of undernourished people in the world by 14 percent in two years (from 848 million people to 963 million).
Countries with existing humanitarian crises are particularly exposed to the effects of the pandemic, in terms of both direct impacts on people’s health, and indirect effects, such as disruption of livelihoods, food supply chains and access to food, basic services as well as humanitarian assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic is already directly affecting food systems through impacts on food supply and demand, and indirectly through decreases in purchasing power, the capacity to produce and distribute food, and the intensification of care tasks, all of which will have differentiated impacts and will more strongly affect the most vulnerable populations. The effects could be even stronger in countries that are already facing exceptional emergencies with direct consequences for the agricultural sectors.
A major compounding factor for food crisis contexts is that the pandemic has posed significant repercussions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Resources are being diverted to support COVID-19 efforts, affecting budgets for assistance. Movement restrictions are impacting the mobility of supplies and staff, including the possibility to conduct field work. Humanitarian delivery costs has increased as a result. This has resulted to an increase in the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance, posing a serious challenge in terms of the ability of governments and organizations to address those needs. Lessons from previous crises demonstrate that actions to safeguard livelihoods, food production and food access will likely have a significant return on investment, in terms of saving lives and livelihoods and reinforcing local food systems in this critical time.
The agriculture sector plays an important role in influencing migratory patterns. Transhumant pastoral populations are likely to be hard hit by any border closures, as they rely on seasonal movements of livestock for their food and income. The disruption of traditional transhumance patterns and the creation of new ones may lead to tensions and even violent conflicts between resident and pastoralist communities, resulting in local displacement and increased levels of poverty and food insecurity. In addition, risk of youth enrollment in extremist groups cannot be ruled out as a negative coping strategy in these contexts. The impact on these communities is of particular concern. In addition, if food supply chains become disrupted and livelihoods untenable, vulnerable populations are more likely to move in search of assistance – especially in fragile contexts and remote areas where movement restrictions may be much more difficult to control. Such movements would further threaten to spread the virus, heighten social tensions, provoke displacement, and undermine livelihoods.
The potential combined impact of COVID-19 on unemployment, households’ purchasing power, food prices, and food availability in local markets could severely jeopardize access to food in the most vulnerable countries. In the case of the 2014 West Africa EVD outbreak, travel restrictions and suspension of operations of periodic markets disrupted trade flows of food commodities and other necessities, causing food shortages in local market and the consequent impact on food security.
Lessons learnt from previous crises should inform policy and action today. For instance, the 2014 West Africa Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak and related containment measures disrupted agricultural market supply chains, hindered crop and livestock activities and caused acute agricultural labour shortages in the region. The economic impact of the EVD outbreak had a strong negative effect on the purchasing power of the most vulnerable households, and consequently on their access to food. Other key lessons can be derived from the food prices crisis of 2007–2008, which had an impact on the livelihoods and food security of the most vulnerable people. On that occasion, immediate market and policy responses such as panic buying and export restrictions contributed to further increase the inflationary pressure. On the other hand, some countries managed to lessen the impact of soaring food prices through policies softening the pass-through of international prices on domestic markets and households.
These experiences highlight the need to act quickly and anticipate the collateral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by devising appropriate policy measures, maintaining and upscaling humanitarian food security interventions, and protecting the livelihoods and food access of the most vulnerable people, particularly those in food crisis contexts.