No family wants to be stuck in their home and yet starve due to food security systems being shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic which has taken more than 40 million people’s lives and affected over 200 million worldwide.
That scenario could become occurring dangerous reality if food security concerns are not addressed immediately, as reports from multiple food security monitoring groups such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) suggests that East Africa will “remain a food insecurity hotspot as new COVID-19 variants continue to spread”.
The pandemic and its new variants bring more pressure to the fragile food security systems and unstable economies of East Africa, as precautionary measures weigh in on-farm operations, weaken supply chains and increase cross-border trade tensions.
Even before the pandemic shocks, the African food system had a few setbacks in its path which included the inadequate capability to analyze risks and vulnerabilities, financial backing and the ability to adopt multi-sector and inclusive approaches.
Further compounding that scenario is that, when climate change impacts to farmers across the East African region and conflicts are factored in, more people will remain prone to hunger if the variants persist to hurt communities and economies.
In terms of numbers, things look even worse. In East Africa, at least seven million people are at risk of starvation and another 33.8 million face acute food insecurity, but also about 12.8 million children are acutely malnourished in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan (World Vision).
Taking a deeper look into the matter, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) argues that the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of food and nutrition security in Africa at large by increasing competition for water, pasture and land—all of which are essential resources in promoting food systems.
“The pandemic possesses the same drivers of conflict as those from climate variability and change. Volatile security situations and the coronavirus pandemic threaten food systems and rural livelihoods,” the FAO argues.
World Food Programme (WFP) August 2020 report noted that “In cities and urban areas in East Africa, livelihoods and incomes of populations are seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for those living in informal settlements. These urban populations are more vulnerable to food insecurity and unstable livelihoods as they mainly depend on the informal sector. It is estimated that the number of food-insecure people in East Africa will increase to more than 41 million people because of COVID-19 including 14 million urban dwellers”.
The second wave of the pandemic brought new problems to Uganda, as higher staple food prices and hunger came with the 42-day lockdown imposed to curb the deadly second wave.
East Africa recorded thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths from the pandemic, and sadly the new variant brings more than death to the fold, as more concerns are now being raised that without significant government interventions, the entire East African region could suffer chronic food insecurity due to disruptions in agricultural production and markets, drought, unemployment, the pandemic and conflict (Alliance For Science).
This is not only affecting Uganda, but also its neighbour Kenya, which has seen nearly thirteen counties grappling with spikes in new COVID-19 cases, encountering the same harsh precautionary measures being taken by the government.
In July the number of deaths rose by more than 40 per cent, according to information from the BBC, and less than two per cent of the continent has been fully vaccinated. In that context, the pandemic brought several challenges that hindered the food security systems.
In 2020, the first wave resulted in East African countries imposing strict transport restrictions that significantly disrupted “food and commodity supply chain links between their rural and urban areas, creating serious food security risks. According to Joshua Opita, an agricultural and livelihoods expert, people in both these countries were pushed into food insecure zones,” according to the Alliance for Science, July 14, report.
The Alliance for Science said that the second COVID-19 wave worsened food insecurity in East Africa and that by June 2021 food security outlook publication by FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network) highlighted that Uganda’s farmers are now getting lower farm gate prices, especially for staple perishables like cooking bananas, horticultural commodities and poultry products.
“Farmers who supply food to urban areas reportedly are earning less income than usual from crop sales due to low prices, limiting their ability to access other non-food needs,” the publication noted.
Further, in Kenya, the FEWS NET analysis saw that “poor households in the country’s 13 counties that are under lockdown will face increased food insecurity and reduced food access due to declining employment and income-generating opportunities,”
On a larger scale, East Africa can embark on FAO suggested solutions to improve food and nutrition security. The recommended approaches bring about measures that bring food security systems to a point of resilience and sustainability. One of the key measures is setting up an integrated analysis of risks and vulnerabilities, as the region still faces other natural hazards which hinder the supply of food in communities.
Adopting multi-sector and inclusive approaches and additional and long-term financial backing is crucial to ensure farmers have the right tools, knowledge and capacity to handle various challenges and opportunities at their disposal.