Covid-19 and food insecurity

Pakistan’s report card on food security makes for ominous reading

While the world is reeling from the mounting morbidity and mortality from the Covid-19 pandemic, the United Nations has predicted that it also faces several famines of “biblical proportions” in a matter of months. The World Food Programme has warned that the coronavirus pandemic will ratchet up the number of people facing acute food insecurity in 2020 to 265 million from 130 million people in 2019.

Pakistan is among the 55 countries projected to face acute food insecurity as a result of the global pandemic. These countries are vulnerable to food insecurity because they have little or no capacity to absorb the economic aspects of the health crisis. Consequently, they have to make painful trade-offs between Covid-19-related deaths and unemployment. In extreme cases, the trade-off would be between deaths from Covid-19 and deaths from hunger-related cnditions.

Covid-19 can adversely affect food security through a wide range of mechanisms. On the demand side, the rising unemployment and underemployment will reduce the purchasing power of the people. The workers, especially the daily wage earners in the informal economy, are at risk of losing their jobs because of social distancing and other government restrictions. Similarly, households that rely on remittances will also lose their source of income. As the purchasing power of the households is reduced, there will be a decline in consumer demand.

Restrictions on the movement of agricultural workers may also limit their availability and may increase food prices. The countries which rely on imported food will also experience rising food prices because of the depreciation in their local currencies against the US dollar. If there is panic buying by the developed world, the globally traded food items will become even more expensive, at least in the short run.

The fear in the global markets could also result in a decline in international financing and portfolio outflows from food-insecure countries. Manufacturing sectors, such as textiles, have already seen substantial cancellations of orders, putting millions of jobs at risk across South and South-East Asia.

On the supply side, an assortment of factors seems to drive food insecurity in the vulnerable developing nations. Although the harvests in 2020 have been quite promising, restriction on the movement of the people to contain the spread of coronavirus have disrupted the transport systems. The increased delivery time has reduced the availability of even the most essential items.

Many households in developing countries depend on food production and livestock rearing. If the supply chain of agricultural inputs is disrupted, farmers may find it challenging to access livestock markets, which will result in a decline in the crop and livestock production and sales.

The locust outbreak may also have dramatic consequences for food production. The other supply-side factors could be related to illness-related labour shortages, transport interruptions, quarantine measures limiting access to markets. Supply chain disruptions resulting in food loss and waste could affect supply.

The Covid-19 may well significantly alter the labour market dynamics. It is presumed that rising unemployment in more food insecure, lower-income countries would coincide with often more labour-intensive production, aggravating the repercussions on output. At the same time, service industries in poorer countries are often less digitised and more reliant on face-to-face contact, meaning that containment measures, designed to limit human interaction, or avoidance by scared customers could hit harder.

Restrictions on the movement, soaring unemployment, and limited access to food may generate discontent, violence and conflict. Violence and exploitation, especially sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as domestic violence, will increase because of prolonged confinement and exposure to perpetrators, increased stress caused by reduced income and reduced access to basic needs.

Governments around the world are under immense pressure to ease lockdowns. The risk of social unrest may rise exponentially in many countries if the lockdown is extended. This situation creates an unprecedented challenge for keeping national and global food supply chains intact.

In Pakistan, there is an uneasy truce between the government and prayer leaders over the issue of obligatory congregational prayers in the mosques and taraweeh prayer in the month of Ramazan. The Philippines’ military has recently indicated it is prepared for a martial law-type lockdown in the event of unrest, although no orders havw been given yet.

It might be insightful to see the vulnerabilities of Pakistan vis-à-vis food insecurity. Even without the impact of coronavirus, the outlook for Pakistan was already dire. Pakistan’s report card on food security makes for ominous reading.

A locust outbreak in Pakistan is expected to compound the food security issue. Initially, parts of Sindh and Balochistan came under the attack, but over time, the locust has penetrated into the Punjab.

According to the recently published World Food Programme report 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, about 23 percent of the people in drought-affected areas of Balochistan and Sindh are stressed, whereas 51 percent of the people in these areas are in crisis or worse circumstances. Stressed households are defined as the “households which have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies”.

The patterns of food insecurity in the world show wide disparities. Of the 130 million people suffering acute food insecurity in 2019, the majority (77 million) were in countries afflicted by conflict, 34 million were hit by the climate crisis, and 24 million were in areas where there was an economic crisis. Pakistan is among the countries where extreme weather conditions drive food insecurity. In Sindh, the 2018 monsoon season rains were almost 70 percent below average. In Balochistan, they were 45 percent below average, resulting in acute shortages of water, food, and fodder into 2019.

But it must be remembered that most of Pakistan’s food insecurity woes predate Covid-19, as shown by shocking anthropometric statistics. Pakistan is among the countries where there is a major food crisis, and more than 40 percent of the under-5 children are stunted. Pakistan shares with Yemen the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest population of stunted under-5 children (46.5 percent). Pakistan is also among the countries where less than 20 percent (14.2 percent to specific) of 6-23-month old children received a minimally diverse diet, as estimated by Food Security Information Network.

Locust outbreak in Pakistan in recent years is also expected to compound the issues of food insecurity. Initially, parts of Sindh and Balochistan came under a locust attack, but over time, the locust has penetrated deep into Punjab planes. According to the Agriculture Department, some areas of Rojhan tehsil in Rajanpur district have become the hub of locust.

There are particular concerns for people working in the informal economy, and the world’s 79 million refugees and displaced people. The refugee problem is acute in Pakistan.

According to UNHCR estimates, Pakistan is among eight countries where 52 percent of the world’s refugee populations are hosted. With 1.4 million refugees, Pakistan is the second country in the world in terms of refugee-hosting, second only to Turkey with 3.6 million refugees.

How can we minimise the risk of widespread food insecurity. Against the nagging fears of a looming food crisis, Dr Arif Husain, the chief economist at the World Food Programme, has expressed some cautious optimism. He has observed, “The good news is that this pandemic does not necessarily have to turn into a food security crisis. The extent to which the Covid-19 will affect food markets is conditional upon countries staying calm even in the face of supply chain hiccups and not resorting to protective beggar-thy-neighbour policies.”

With the US breaking out of WHO at a time when its support was most needed for the global body, the capability of a coordinated global strategy to contain the virus is severely dented. Still, a consensus seems to be emerging that putting in place real-time food security monitoring systems is an important strategy against the Covid-19 pandemic. Getting real-time information about market and supply chains is also crucial to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Critical humanitarian needs, livelihood, and location assistance for the vulnerable groups is another prerequisite. Positioning food to reinforce and scale up social protection systems around the world is also crucial. Importantly, the most vulnerable countries and populations should be supported not just in providing medical care, but also assistance through safety nets that have the flexibility to respond to shocks.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, and may be reached at [email protected]

Covid-19 and food insecurity