Those entrusted with power and charged with duties to the general public need to reflect on current systems, structures and institutions
By Immaculate Yossa Daisy
Festivities to mark a new year and decade have been short-lived world over as crises and pandemics characterize the first months of 2020. Parts of Africa are plagued with desert locusts and before these could be subdued, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has struck, creating a double pandemic for the continent, East Africa inclusive.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) March 2020 update on the locust invasion the situation is extremely startling in the Horn of Africa and Kenya where widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form. In Uganda, at the onset of the invasion, UGX 15 billion (USD 3,826,650) was set aside as a contingency fund to fight the spread and as the locusts spread to other parts of the country, the budget allocation could increase.
The advent of COVID-19 amid the locust habitation in East Africa spells unprecedented all-round implications for citizens and the governments with a looming food crisis.
With confirmed cases in Uganda, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, partial lockdowns across the region have taken effect. Borders have been closed, commercial flights suspended, citizens encouraged to stay at home, public transport discouraged, social distancing advised and communication to masses to uphold personal hygiene and sanitation sweeps across all airwaves. All these are part of the efforts to minimize the spread of the virus.
Livelihoods of millions are at risk of hunger and nutrition insecurity in the region as the lock downs and persistence of desert locusts disrupt food systems. Breeding swams-projected in millions if not nipped in the bud will cause catastrophic destruction to food production affecting yields, leading to low production for both home consumption and ultimately food scarcity in the markets.
Restrictions in mobility of persons and transport as directed by the governments imply that the movement of food supplies from points of production to the markets is affected. Social distancing and suspension of gatherings typical in African food markets is distorting demand and supply. Low-income wage earners are at risk of losing their jobs at the height of the COVID 19 pandemic, thereby affecting their purchasing power for everything including food.
Current uncertainty in supply of basic commodities particularly those imported from countries first hit by COVID-19 especially China and in the East Africa region, has had unscrupulous traders inflate prices including of food items which are domestically produced as they anticipate a total lock down with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Vulnerable populations such as unemployed youth, the elderly, women and children from low-income households, are at a higher risk of food and malnutrition because of the absence of buffers to shield them from these shocks. Large-scale agro processors are already facing limitation deficits seen from below capacity production as for instance in production of juices.
Food Choices in these times for people to access sufficient diverse and nutritious sources of food is limited. According to FAO, 820 million people around the world are experiencing chronic hunger, not eating enough caloric energy to live normal lives. Of this, 113 million are coping with acute severe insecurity making them dependent on external assistance. These pandemics would worsen the situation further.
Hivos and partners under the sustainable diets for all have since 2016 mooted for a systems approach to address food and nutrition. The message has never been timely as it is these times. We wish to reiterate the need to address food production, processing, trade, retailing and consumption simultaneously. Internal agro processing must be prioritized by governments in East Africa to curb dependency on imports, which currently is creating shortages in supply owing to closed borders and suspension of travels. It will provide opportunities for growth of local industries, employment and improve standard of living for the populace especially resident in rural economies where most of the production takes place.
Additionally, food safety nets should be integrated in disaster preparedness programmes. Efforts to ensure food availability and accessibility of affordable, safe and nutritious food need to be supported. Food production and handling is a human interactive process. Patients require not just medicine but nutritious and healthy foods to recover fast. In light of this, trade policies should be reviewed with an aim to ease the burden on the population especially the vulnerable. The needs of low-income consumers, producers, traders and processors who form the backbone of the food system should be factored in this review. Subsidies for instance on essential food items should be considered to increase production, reduce costs of production to enable prevalence of fair prices on the market.
Social protection programmes for instance -Social Assistance grant for the Elderly in Uganda (SAGE) could include in such times support to households that have greater difficulties in accessing food. Monthly stipends to the elderly already benefiting should be increased to enable these groups access food they urgently need for their survival.
Those entrusted with power and charged with duties to the general public need to reflect on current systems, structures and institutions and weigh their ability to respond and manage crises once they occur. This in part should include addressing and reducing the persistent social, economic and political inequalities that aggravate the vulnerabilities of low income earners, youth, women and elderly. Now more than ever, populations need to strike against all forms of actions that disrupt nature and its resources. It is imperative that we promote and conserve our biodiversity, invest in healthy systems with food at the centre.