The link between food (in)security, peace and stability and COVID-19

ACCORD COVID-19 Infographic
References: Datalab

COVID-19 may have started as a public health emergency, but at this stage, the measures taken to contain the crisis have developed into an economic crisis, that has more of an impact on people's livelihoods than the virus itself.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the COVID-19 pandemic as “the biggest international challenge since the Second World War.” In response, governments all over the world introduced unprecedented measures to contain the spread of the virus, including national lockdowns, social distancing, and travel restrictions. All of these measures have short and long-term economic consequences. The short-term impact has been most severe on those who are dependent on daily wage labour, or small-scale trading to earn their living in the informal economy. However, everyone will be affected by the looming global economic recession that will dramatically increase the number of people who face poverty and food insecurity.

COVID-19 has started as a health emergency, but the measures taken to contain it have developed into an economic crisis that has more impact on people’s livelihoods than the virus itself.

The concept of food security is deceptively simple and essentially involves ensuring that all people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and their food preference, to ensure an active and healthy life. Achieving this is, however, not so simple, and failing to reach this standard is considered food insecurity. The extent to which food insecurity directly result in cases of political instability varies between countries and regions. Nevertheless, the literature agrees that events (like COVID-19) which impact on people’s ability to be food secure can be a trigger for social tension and conflict. Within this context, food insecurity is seen as a multiplier for the likelihood of conflict, which can be diminished by increasing food security through government policies and schemes.

Since governments of poorer countries are less able to provide support to make up for the loss of income and other social protection programmes that contribute to overall food security, they have a greater risk of food-related conflicts during COVID-19. Of the several broad patterns that connect food insecurity to socio-political disturbances, the most relevant in this context relates to transitory (acute) food insecurity that is associated with, among others, temporary price hikes; rather than chronic food insecurity associated with long-term deficiencies.

COVID-19 is already affecting food systems directly through its impact on food supply and demand, and indirectly through a decrease in purchasing power and the capacity to produce and distribute food. Governments, when faced with these pressures, can attempt to increase food supply through policy interventions that can either release food from strategic reserves, food export bans or import subsidies, or through social protection measures, especially food assistance programmes.

In contrast to the 2007-08 food price crisis, “…the current crisis is about food access as opposed to food availability and driven by income losses rather than by rising prices.” Access to food and the opportunity to generate income through informal trading and daily wage labour will increase as many governments in Africa ease out of their first lockdown period in May 2020. Nevertheless, a substantial gap has already emerged in people’s ability to meet their basic needs and other expenses. To help bridge the gap, governments around the world have announced economic stimulus packages that are aimed at boosting small, medium and large businesses, which will also indirectly protect livelihood and food security and lower the associated conflict risks. In Africa, 44 governments have introduced a total of 156 measures to support their businesses and citizens to lessen the economic effects of COVID-19.

For example, in a national address on 21 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government of South Africa had injected R 500 billion into the economy as an extraordinary coronavirus budget. This economic package is the third phase of the government’s strategy. The first phases included tax relief, wage support, funding for small business and a disaster release fund. In total, these measures will amount to 7.06% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the largest percentage of GDP in Africa for a COVID-19 response.

In terms of spending, South Africa and Egypt (who has the second-largest COVID-19 support package) account for 85% of the US$ 37.8 billion that African nations have allocated to respond to COVID-19. The majority of countries have turned to other measures to ease the economic impact of the pandemic on their citizens that is based on their needs and budgets. These include tax relief, utility bill freezes, cash transfers to vulnerable groups, financial support for small and medium-sized enterprises and informal sectors, food and/or water distribution, regulations preventing dismissal of workers, creation of safe markets for informal workers, and rent/mortgage holidays.

As we have seen with the Arab Spring and related events, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, most notably the wars in Libya and Syria, economic downturns also increase the risk of political instability and violent conflict. It is estimated that Africa will require US$ 114 billion to provide front-line health services, support the vulnerable, and keep their economies afloat during the global economic downturn caused by COVID-19. However, the capacity of African states to afford and implement such measures varies greatly, and many countries may not be in a position to introduce these reliefs and will, therefore, be vulnerable to sudden price-shocks or related events that increase social tensions, like food insecurity, which can trigger violent conflict.

In the face of this unprecedented challenge, nations, multilateral institutions and development partners are hard at work to avoid the worst effects of COVID-19 in Africa. For example, the African Union’s (AU) Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 OUTBREAK will build on existing structures on the Continent to coordinate efforts of Member States, AU agencies, the World Health Organization, and other partners to ensure synergy and minimize duplication of initiative; and promote evidence-based public health practice for surveillance, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and control of COVID-19. It is anticipated that the Strategy will meaningfully increase the efficiency of Africa’s medical response to COVID-19.

Nevertheless, significant gaps in funding and capacity remain. To overcome these gaps new partnerships will need to form across private and public spheres. Some of these lessons and trends have already emerged with calls of solidarity eliciting support from individuals and business to fund COVID-19 responses. Similar solidarity will be required to mitigate the enormous short and long term economic effects of the Great Lockdown and should be incorporated into strategies to gather relevant evidence of what works in which context to inform and coordinate social protection and economic stimulus effectively.

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