Virtual press briefing: It is time to stop hunger from becoming deadlier than the virus – Experts

ONE partnered with the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) to host a virtual press event on 11 June 2020. The virtual panel discussion also marked the launch the partners’ paper on food security in Africa, titled: How to stop hunger from becoming more deadly than the virus. Read the English and French versions.

As the world grapple with containment of COVID-19 pandemic, food protests especially among poor and vulnerable African communities are likely going to be deadlier than the virus itself, if governments and international institutions do not act now, experts have warned.

In a virtual meeting with the press from across Africa, experts from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and ONE – a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030 said that there exists a window of opportunity for governments to save the situation, and plan for future eventualities but only if they act in time.

“We are heading towards a real disaster because when hunger comes in, people will always protests,” said Dr Fadel Ndiame, AGRA’s Deputy President, noting that COVID-19 effects to food security are going to be worse than what was witnessed during Ebola, because the current virus is affecting the entire world.

As a short term measure, the experts want African governments to expand and improve food assistance and social protection programs to protect the most vulnerable including cash-based transfers as the primary safety net, which can largely be distributed through contactless solutions; in-kind food assistance such as take-home rations, food package delivery, and food vouchers where necessary.

It was observed that at the moment, there is no food shortage in the global market. In Europe and the US for example, milk is being dumped and eggs are being smashed as demand from restaurants decreases. But access to the food poses a problem because borders have been closed, and movements curtailed as part of COVID-19 containment measures.

At the same time, during such crisis, some families panic and hoard food. In response, countries impose export restrictions in a misguided effort to protect domestic prices. This is likely going to be a huge problem because many African countries depend on imported food, especially rice from Asian countries.

 “Food security concerns go hand in hand with pandemics,” said Edwin Ikhuoria, ONE’s Africa Executive Director, noting that the SARS and MERS outbreaks led to food price hikes and market panics in affected areas, leaving the poorest groups without access to essential foods, especially staples.

In the East African region for example, Tanzanian President Dr John Pombe Magufuli has publicly urged farmers in his the country not to sell food to neighboring countries, and if they must sell it, they must make sure they charge exorbitantly to take advantage of food shortages in countries that imposed lockdown to contain the virus.

With the invasion of desert locust, floods and containment measures for COVID-19, Kenya and Uganda are the most affected in the region. Kenya in particular heavily relies on supplies of commodities such as onions, fruits, tomatoes and other vegetables from Tanzania through Namanga border. Yet, due to the COVID-19 pandemic containment measures, movements across the border have been restricted.

To that end, the experts asked all governments to step up efforts to ensure adequate food reserves by stepping up local production and storage, and called on donors to fully fund the US$1.5 billion requested by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP).

GAFSP, created by the G20 in response to the 2007-2008 food price crises, is a multilateral mechanism to improve food and nutrition security that has effectively channeled finances to governments, the private sector, and directly to farmers.

To the international institutions, the experts called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Board to act to create $500bn in Special Drawing Rights and all actors should immediately enact a debt moratorium for bilateral, multilateral and private debt for 2020 and 2021.

Special Drawing Rights should be allocated to poorer countries, providing them with immediate liquidity to respond to the crisis, said Ikhuoria, further calling on donors tofully fund the US$6.7 billion requested for the Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

The GHRP is a coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 in 64 of the world’s most vulnerable countries, and includes financing for the UN World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The IMF forecasts global economic growth to contract by 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from the January 2020 projection. This will make it the worst downturn since the Great Depression.  As a result, 419 million additional people could fall into extreme poverty in 2020, particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia according to the International Food Policy Research Institute(IFPRI)

Recent studies on the impact of COVID-19 in rural China confirm that in order to ensure adequate food, families substituted high nutrition foods such as meat and produce, for lower nutrition items like grains and staples, significantly impacting nutrition. In Senegal, more than 85% of its population has seen a reduction in income, and as a result, over a third of them now eat less food every day.

Generally, the main productive asset of the poor is physical labor. Yet, this has already been affected by social distancing measures making efforts to contain the virus much more challenging, according to IFPRI.

As a result, media reports have shown that vulnerable citizens in Tunisia have disobeyed lockdown measures to protest over hunger.  In Zimbabwe, where extreme hunger debilitates 30% of the population, many are willing to risk contracting COVID-19 if it means they can eat.

“We need governments to develop sustainable food systems that can support individual countries even in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ndiame.

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