MORE than any other dimension of food security, food access was arguably the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
The global economic recession triggered by lockdowns had a very negative impact on people’s ability to access food.
As the crisis dragged on, short-term coping strategies (savings, the selling of livestock and assets) reached their limits or were exhausted in most developing countries, including Zimbabwe.
In many countries, the price shocks in the cost of food, fuel and fertiliser, particularly in Zimbabwe, squeezed household budgets already depleted by two years of pandemic-induced job and income losses to the limit.
Humanitarian and social protection responses were needed to cushion the negative impact of these developments on the food security and nutritional status of citizens around the world.
At the start of 2020, global cereal stocks were at near record levels and food supplies were generally not in short supply.
The overall food commodity prices in the initial months of the pandemic fell globally.
However, in the wake of the global lockdown measures the food price index trend masked wide variability in food commodity prices.
Initially, prices for meat, dairy, sugar and vegetable oil fell sharply, while prices for cereal grains remained steady.
As the pandemic intensified, price trends shifted, with meat prices rising; for instance, in some countries, as meat-packing workers experienced high rates of illness and meat-processing plants closed temporarily in order to halt transmission of the disease in worker communities
The pandemic also affected localised price changes, with some countries, including Zimbabwe and other countries that depend on food imports, experiencing localised food price increases.
For example, while in Zimbabwe food prices continued on an upward spiral, in Venezuela and Guyana, food prices increased by almost 50 percent whereas in Kenya, food prices rose only 2,6 percent, according to FAO.
This uneven food price impact was the result of several complex factors, including price increases and export restrictions initially placed on some cereal crops such as rice and wheat by several of the exporting countries compared to prices for other foods, which generally fell.
For example, between February and mid-April 2020, the price of rice in Thailand, Vietnam and the US increased by 32,25 and 10 percent respectively.
Currency, depreciation in countries affected by the global recession also contributed to higher localised food prices for countries relying on imported foods.
Food price increases also resulted from disrupted supply chains that affected the cost of shipping.
Localised price increases impact directly on food security and nutrition by making food more expensive and thus more difficult to access, especially for people with limited incomes.
The ongoing economic uncertainty affected currency values and stability in global food markets.
The upward pressure on local food prices in some countries also affected food system stability.
Price rises, in these countries, affected households’ ability to purchase sufficient food.
Co-morbidities also impacted some populations deeply, particularly marginalised groups, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19, resulting in higher mortality and morbidity rates, with implications for labour, income and access to food for lower income groups.
To support countries shoulder the soaring costs of food imports and improve access to food at country level, in April 2022, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), proposed the establishment of a Food Import Financing Facility (FIFF).
Based on a comprehensive technical assessment, the facility covered 62 countries with a total population of 1,78 billion people.
While world grain stocks were relatively high at the start of the pandemic and remained strong, the global situation masked localised variability.
Grain production in high-income and highly mechanised countries requiring less labour were less vulnerable to disease outbreaks among farm workers. In contrast, cereal production on smaller farms in lower income countries were more labour intensive and female dominated; making them more prone to the contagion.
In contrast to grains, supply chains for horticulture, dairy and meat-packaging were more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 in higher income countries because of their more labour intensive nature, susceptibility to food worker illnesses and corporate concentration leading to larger farms and processing facilities where disease outbreaks spread swiftly.
Utilisation and nutrition were affected by the pandemic in important ways.
According to FAO, good nutrition is essential for supporting the human immune system and reducing the risk of infections. However, as people’s ability to access food diminished during the crisis, this had a negative impact on their capacity to afford a healthy diet.
The impact of this was mainly felt in low and middle-income countries where, typically, people spend a higher proportion of their income on food compared to people in high-income countries, with the poorest households typically spending around 50-80 percent of their income on food.
The pandemic also resulted in an increase in the use of single-use plastic food packaging and carrier bags, which are not easily recycled
The dynamics of the pandemic, together with the food, energy and financing crises, changed the priorities of many international developmental agencies and aid organisations; many already straining under logistical challenges and uncertain budgets, went beyond specific interventions to support responses to the global COVID-19 food crisis already strained by climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic also raised the risk of diverting attention and funding from climate change and environmental concerns such as biodiversity loss thus affecting longer-term sustainability in the food system.
The pandemic also affected access to clean water and safe sanitation, essential for good hygiene as well as safe food preparation are both vital for ensuring good nutrition.
The pandemic widened inequities with respect to access to these vital services, thus affecting nutrition while at the same time increasing disease risk.
The longer-term viability of food systems was also affected by social and economic losses, the shift in production modalities and the extensive loss of jobs and livelihoods that resulted from the pandemic.
To inform these responses, FAO led the drafting on an inter-agency statement on the ‘Social Protection Response to the Food Price Shocks’, released by the Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board (SPIAC-B), in August 2022.
Along with other international agencies, FAO-recommended countries expanded their social protection programmes, either by expanding the coverage of existing programmes or increasing the level of their benefits, or by introducing new measures to sustain households’ purchasing power and food consumption.
To this end, the World Banks granted Zimbabwe drawing rights on US$1billion. At national level, FAO contributed to the UN Socio-Economic Response Plans (SERPs) in 117 countries, conducting joint country-level assessments with partners on the ground, such as the Humanitarian Country Team, UN agencies, governments and civil society organisations.
This enabled the pooling and leveraging of expertise, resources and networks for a wider coverage and more timely and inter-sectoral assessments and responses. This helped inform programmes in terms of geographical and household targeting, particularly women. More than a billion women and girls live in rural areas of developing countries. They often face greater inequalities and injustices than their urban counterparts.
According to Cornelia Richter, vice-president of IFAD, at OECD Global Forum on Development: “[Rural] women too often lack authority in their homes; control over their finances; a voice in their communities; and in too many cases, even autonomy over their own bodies. Rural youth are two to three times more likely than adults to be unemployed. More than 200 million are among the working poor. And roughly 600 million live in fragile situations,” — this made them vulnerable to COVID-19.
In 2020, at the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak the FAO launched its COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme in close consultation with national stakeholders.
This comprehensive programme enabled partners to leverage the organisation’s convening power, real-time data, early warning systems and technical expertise.
It consisted of a flexible and comprehensive approach to demand-driven support for addressing the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic and providing humanitarian responses.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: email@example.com