Hunger looms as the economy stopsThe government needs to act to neutralise the threats to food and nutrition security from the lockdown.
Countries across the world have gone into lockdown to prevent further spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. While this measure is essential, it could potentially lead to threats in a number of sectors, among them, food and nutrition security.
The world is already facing food and nutrition security challenges. A World Food Programme report shows that more than 820 million people around the world are already suffering from chronic hunger—not eating enough caloric energy to live normal lives. Among them, 113 million are coping with acute severe insecurity—hunger so severe that it poses an immediate threat to their lives and livelihoods. Almost 150 million children around the world are stunted for lack of proper nutrition.
According to the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2016, while food security in Nepal has improved in recent years, 20 percent of the households remain mildly food insecure, and 22 and 10 percent remain moderately and severely food insecure respectively. These people can ill afford any potential further disruptions to their livelihoods or food security that Covid-19 might bring.
Impact on food security
We have historical evidence to show that such health crises can have a serious effect on food security, which is especially hard on vulnerable communities. Since the beginning of the lockdown in different parts of the world, supplies of staple food, fruits, vegetables and meat have not been adequate, and there are reports of price hikes and shortages in some areas. Similarly, quarantine and controlled mobility limit food production and access to markets besides causing supply chain disruptions resulting in food loss and waste. On the demand side, a loss of jobs and purchasing power can change people's consumption patterns resulting in poorer nutrition.
Nepal is already facing huge losses in agricultural production due to recurring natural disasters. Food prices fluctuate along with regional food prices, and this is intensified by our poor infrastructure. The pandemic imposes another challenge on the food production and supply chain system. The production of staple food crops such as maize, rice and vegetables will be affected, if the crisis continues into the critical spring and summer planting period. If staple crops like rice and maize are affected, it could lead to grave food insecurity.
Small-scale farmers are confused whether agriculture inputs can be distributed in time for sowing. They might face hindrances in working on their land and accessing markets to sell their products or buy seeds and other essential inputs. The restriction on the movement of people leads to labour shortages during the planting and harvesting seasons. We cannot predict what percentage of the land will remain fallow.
As for marketing, farmers cannot transport fresh produce to local and urban markets. This may have an impact on circulation and the availability of food and agricultural products. Similarly, it upsets several value chains that consequently impacts prices. Trade will be disrupted as local and international shipping services will either delay or cancel because transport companies refuse to travel for fear of being infected. International and domestic trade disruption may trigger a food market panic.
Covid-19 may have a huge impact on the economies of Nepal’s agricultural production, marketing and trade. As Nepal is more labour intensive, less digitised and more reliant on face-to-face contact, containment measures that are likely to limit human interaction and cause physical distancing can hit the food system harder. Nepal has been put in lockdown, and people have been requested to stay in their homes to halt the possible spread of the disease. But for many daily wage earners, this strategy hits harder. Does the government have any plan to supply food regularly to these people? Thousands of daily wage earners will run out of food in a few days, if the lockdown continues without any alternatives.
There is a fear of starvation. What will be the situation if there are pregnant and lactating women, and people with chronic diseases and disabilities in their families? According to the International Labour Organisation, at least 62.2 percent of Nepal's workforce is employed in the informal sector as street vendors, garbage collectors, cleaners, rickshaw pullers and domestic helpers. Many do not have bank accounts to receive money for their daily needs. They need to have cash or food urgently. Their only choice is between safety and hunger, what should they choose? Several pieces of research showed that countries with high levels of food insecurity like Nepal are generally more vulnerable and less prepared for outbreaks, and they will likely have higher mortality rates.
What needs to be done
The Nepal government urgently needs to take action to ensure food supply or cash transfer to help daily wage earners affected by the lockdown. The poorest and the most vulnerable sections of the population, who have less capacity to address the problem raised by the disease, are impacted the most. It also hits rich people differently. It is unclear how bad the expected economic recession will be, but the previous global recession caused a spike in hunger around the world and forced people to limit the diversity of their diet.
Governments also need to closely monitor food prices and strengthen market supervision, ensure smooth logistical operation of agricultural and food supply chains, introduce enabling policies for the farm sector and increase support for production entities. Then the federal government needs to invest in the poorest and most vulnerable people to strengthen their resilience and enhance their capacity to cope with shocks in anticipation of the impacts of Covid-19 on food security. Otherwise, the consequences of Covid-19 could affect more people than the disease itself.
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