In this interview, Dominique Burgeon, Director of FAO’s Emergency and Resilience Division, explains the particular challenges COVID-19 poses in vulnerable communities already coping with high levels of hunger due to pre-existing crises — and how the Organization is gearing up to help.
Which communities are most at risk from the food security and livelihood impacts of the pandemic?
Even before COVID-19 hit, 113 million people on the planet were already struggling with severe acute food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks or crises. This means they were already on the extreme end of the hunger spectrum-weak, and less well-equipped to fend off the virus.
The vast majority live in rural areas, and depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing, or pastoralism. If they become ill or constrained by restrictions on movement or activity, they will be prevented from working their land, caring for their animals, going fishing, or accessing markets to sell produce, buy food, or get seeds and supplies.
These people have very little to fall back on, materially speaking. They could find themselves forced to abandon their livelihoods. By that I mean they’ve might have to sell off their animals or their fishing boat for cash. Or eat all of their seeds instead of saving some to replant. Once a rural farming family does that, getting to be self-reliant again becomes extremely difficult. Some might even have no other choice than to leave their farms in search of assistance.
Has something like this happened before?
There are some similarities with the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak. That disrupted agricultural market supply chains. Many farmers couldn’t grow or sell crops. This, plus agricultural labour shortages, impacted food production. In Liberia, 47 percent 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. The nutritional impact was predominantly attributable to reduced food access — driven by a reduction in economic activity that reduced families’ purchasing power.
People went hungry. So the lessons from the 2014 EVD outbreak are clear: while health needs are an urgent and primary concern, we cannot neglect livelihoods or food security aspects.
Also, when people’s livelihoods are disrupted, that can spark tensions and social unrest.
Well, if food supply chains become disrupted and livelihoods untenable, vulnerable populations may be more likely to leave behind their livelihoods and move in search of assistance – as would any of us – with the unintended consequence of potentially further spreading the virus and possibly encountering heightened social tensions.
For pastoralists, the disruption of traditional transhumance patterns 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.
Where do the people most at risk live?
To give one example, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia nearly 12 million people already found themselves in dire circumstances as a result of extended severe droughts and back-to-back failed harvests before hordes of desert locusts descended on their crops and pastures in late December/early January.
In Africa, we are also worried about the Sahel, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan to name a few food crises. But no continent is immune. From Afghanistan to Haiti to Syria to Myanmar, COVID-19 risks further exacerbating the impact of conflicts and natural disasters.
We will be working everywhere we are needed, but FAO’s response strategy will prioritize countries already facing food crises, as per the Global Report on Food Crises. Our work will adapt to the evolution of the pandemic, which may see rising needs in countries not currently in crisis but that are extremely vulnerable to a new shock.
Are COVID-19 impacts on food security and livelihoods already being felt in these places?
In terms of understanding the extend of the health dimension, this is the mandate of WHO and other colleagues, and they are working mightily to get a better understanding in these contexts.
For FAO, our focus is the concern that 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, in which the health crisis will be compounded by a hunger crisis. And that, in a vicious feedback loop, will leave more people weaker and vulnerable to the virus.
New cases are being reported every day in all of the countries we are concerned about. Getting a better understanding of the impact of the disease on food security is a top priority, so we can rapidly deploy the right kinds of responses and strategically target them to meet needs.
Tell us more about how FAO plans to respond.
We are moving to sustain and then scale up our critical livelihood saving programs in countries coping with protracted crises or pre-existing high levels of food insecurity. The UN system on 25 March launched a consolidated humanitarian appealunder which FAO asked donors for $110 million to protect the food security of vulnerable rural populations.
In addition to improve data gathering and analysis to inform decision-making, we will be stabilizing incomes and access to food as well as preserving livelihoods. This means 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. We will also distribute seeds and home gardening kits, food storage systems, and poultry and other small stock to improve household nutrition and diversify incomes. Similar activities will be undertaken in camps for refugees and the displaced.
Social protection schemes will be a critical tool and we are engaging with governments, local organizations and others to look at ways we can scale up existing systems, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas. One key way to stabilize families’ purchasing power will be through injections of cash, so they can meet critical household needs without selling off their assets.
We’ll also work 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.
And will help make sure that people along the food supply chain are not at risk of COVID-19 transmission, by raising awareness about food safety and health best practices. In this effort, we will be collaborating both, with national authorities and the World Health Organization – as we did in the Ebola crisis.
How will FAO manage to deliver, given travel and other restrictions?
Slow-downs or reductions in the delivery of humanitarian assistance could be catastrophic in crises. But the humanitarian community is rapidly readjusting. Working closely with UN partners at country level, business continuity and program criticality planning are underway. FAO country offices are consulting with local partners we’ve worked with for years and who are for the most embedded with the communities we serve, adapting flexible contractual arrangements to combine logistics channels for aid delivery and minimize exposure of staff and beneficiaries. We are also looking at advance procurement of inputs (such as seeds, tools) and pre-positioning, combining input packages to cover longer-term needs, and increasing storage and logistics capacities.
Many wealthy nations are themselves struggling with COVID-19. Will this affect funding for humanitarian action?
It is a legitimate worry, but we are seeing some signs it is not the case. Donors are responding to the UN appeal. Countries are pledging support for others, even as they struggle at home. We are confident that this will be the rule, not the exception.
Perhaps one silver lining of the pandemic is that the shared realization that we’re all in this together. Even as we are all focused –understandably-on the wellbeing of our own families, neighbors, and countries, we’ve also come to understand that this virus does not respect borders. If we beat it back in the developed world but allow it to go unchecked in less-resourced countries whose medical systems struggle to cope and where people are already weak from hunger and less able to withstand the disease, it will come back to haunt us all.
Why should resources go to agricultural livelihoods and food systems, instead of hospitals?
While the human health dimension is no doubt hugely important, the concerns we’re flagging and the work we’re aiming to do will be critical to getting through to the other side without additional and unnecessary human tragedy. Keep in mind that we have over 110 million people in acute food insecurity, this means that these people are extremely vulnerable and that one more shock can push them closer to famine.
Also, if we let people’s livelihoods be lost as a result of this pandemic, once the human health crisis has eased, we will have major problems to deal with, afterwards. It is both more humane and strategically smarter to protect and sustain livelihoods now, rather than rebuild them after.