13 April 2020 — Leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 820 million people went to bed hungry, including 110 million people who were living in acute food insecurity. Now as some developing countries face a double crisis - hunger and COVID-19 - the United Nations is working to support the most vulnerable.

“As the number of infections in vulnerable countries grows – among populations who are already malnourished, weak and vulnerable to disease – a ‘crisis within a crisis’ could emerge,” said Dominique Burgeon, Director of Emergency and Resilience Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in an interview.

“And that, in a vicious feedback loop, will leave more people weaker and vulnerable to the virus,” he warned.

 

Well-nourished citizens in wealthy countries may weather a couple of months without some fresh or imported produce, but in the developing world, a child malnourished at a young age will be stunted for life – FAO Director-General

 

In a recent op-ed, FAO Director-General Dongyu Qu said that the global supply of food remains strong, but questions remain over supply chain, due to quarantine regulations and partial port closures, which are causing slowdowns and logistical hurdles in the shipping industry. Amid border restrictions, trucking faces similar threats, he added.

Scene of a kale farm with people, including children, harvesting the crop.

The cumulative effects of such market disruption, while not yet dramatic, will likely become apparent as early as this month, he warned.

“Well-nourished citizens in wealthy countries may weather a couple of months without some fresh or imported produce, but in the developing world, a child malnourished at a young age will be stunted for life,” he warned.

Governments, even as they prioritize public health goals, must do everything in their power to keep trade routes open and supply chains alive, he urged.

“Now more than ever, we need international co-operation and supple arrangements to preserve the fluidity of global food markets,” he said.

FAO's response strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic targets countries already facing food crises, like Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, where nearly 12 million people had already found themselves in dire circumstances due to extended droughts and back-to-back harvest failures before hordes of desert locusts descended on their crops and pastures from late December to early January. Africa’s Sahel region also faces a food crisis.

An information card on SDG Goal 2: Zero Hunger. "Pandemics can disrupt our lives, including our ability to get food. Ensuring food security and building resilience to disasters are vital in achieving zero hunger"

Communities in rural areas depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing, or pastoralism. If they become ill or constrained by restrictions on movement or activity, their livelihoods will be destroyed, he explains.

 

Lessons from Ebola outbreak

During the Ebola crisis in Africa, food production plummeted by 12 per cent. In Liberia, 47 per cent of farmers were unable to cultivate. Restrictions and market closures disrupted flows of food and necessities. Shortages of goods led to an increase in prices of key commodities. Because of disrupted agricultural market supply chains, people went hungry.

The lessons from the Ebloa outbreak are clear, FAO officials say, emphasizing that “while health needs are an urgent and primary concern, we cannot neglect livelihoods or food security aspects.”

As part of the UN’s $2 billion humanitarian appeal, FAO asked donors for $110 million to protect the food security of vulnerable rural populations. The agency is providing smallholder farmers and herders with seeds, tools, livestock feed and other inputs, along with animal health support, so they can continue to produce food for their families and communities and generate income.

FAO is also working to ensure the continuity of the food supply chain, including between rural, peri-urban and urban areas, by supporting through various activities the functioning of local food markets, value chains and systems.

A scene inside a grocery store shows isles with shoppers choosing items whilst wearing face masks.

In Zimbabwe, the World Food Programme (WFP) is working to ease hunger, as the number of acutely food insecure Zimbabweans has risen to 4.3 million, from 3.8 million at the end of last year.

“With most Zimbabweans already struggling to put food on the table, the COVID pandemic risks even wider and deeper desperation,” said Eddie Rowe, WFP’s Country Director. “We must all do our utmost to prevent this tragedy turning into a catastrophe.”

WFP is planning to assist 4.1 million people in April, although insufficient funding has prevented it achieving the same monthly target since the turn of the year. In March, it reached 3.7 million of the most vulnerable Zimbabweans.

WFP continues to monitor and adjust delivery modalities to meet critical needs throughout lockdown periods. In Djibouti, in coordination with partners, WFP began distributing two-months’ worth of food assistance to 18,500 refugees.

In Honduras, WFP works with the Government to ensure that families unable to receive food rations will receive cash-based transfers, and teachers and local school authorities in rural areas have started to distribute food rations to the families of schoolchildren.

In Haiti, the agency will be delivering one-month rations to 2,185 households in quarantine. In Myanmar, WFP is planning to upgrade warehouses for cold chain processes to support the Government’s COVID-19 response.