For the most vulnerable communities, the pandemic is “a crisis within a crisis”

For the most vulnerable communities, the pandemic is “a crisis within a crisis”

May 15, 2020

For the most vulnerable communities, the pandemic is “a crisis within a crisis”

Dominique Burgeon, Director of FAO's Emergency and Resilience Division, describes how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the most vulnerable and hungriest communities and the FAO efforts to help them to cope with the crisis.

We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system” states the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a recent document on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on agriculture and global food security. Dominique Burgeon is the Director of FAO's Emergency and Resilience Division. Born in Belgium, during his career he worked also as Head of Operations of Emergency Management Unit for the Food Chain Crisis

Which communities are most at risk from the food security and livelihood impacts of the pandemic?

Even before COVID-19 hit, 135 million people on the planet were already struggling with acute food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks or crises. This means they were already on the extreme end of the hunger spectrum-weak, and less well-equipped to fend off the virus.

The vast majority live in rural areas, and depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing, or pastoralism. If they become ill or constrained by restrictions on movement or activity, they will be prevented from working their land, caring for their animals, going fishing, or accessing markets to sell produce, buy food, or get seeds and supplies.

These people have very little to fall back on, materially speaking. They could find themselves forced to abandon their livelihoods. By that I mean they've might have to sell off their animals or their fishing boat for cash. Or eat all of their seeds instead of saving some to replant. Once a rural farming family does that, getting to be self-reliant again becomes extremely difficult. Some might even have no other choice than to leave their farms in search of assistance.

Has something like this happened before? 

There are some similarities with the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak. That disrupted agricultural market supply chains. Many farmers couldn't grow or sell crops. People went hungry. So the lessons from the 2014 Ebola outbreak are clear: while health needs are an urgent and primary concern, we cannot neglect livelihoods or food security aspects. Also, when people's livelihoods are disrupted, that can spark tensions and social unrest.

How so?

Well, if food supply chains become disrupted and livelihoods untenable, vulnerable populations may be more likely to leave behind their livelihoods and move in search of assistance - as would any of us - with the unintended consequence of potentially further spreading the virus and possibly encountering heightened social tensions.

Where do the people most at risk live?

To give one example, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia nearly 12 million people already found themselves in dire circumstances as a result of extended severe droughts and back-to-back failed harvests before hordes of desert locusts descended on their crops and pastures in late December/early January. In Africa, we are also worried about the Sahel, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan to name a few food crises. But no continent is immune. From Afghanistan to Haiti to Syria to Myanmar, COVID-19 risks further exacerbating the impact of conflicts and natural disasters. 

We will be working everywhere we are needed, but FAO's response strategy will prioritize countries already facing food crises, as per the Global Report on Food Crises


Our work will adapt to the evolution of the pandemic, which may see rising needs in countries not currently in crisis but that are extremely vulnerable to a new shock.

Tell us more about how FAO plans to respond

We are moving to sustain and then scale up our critical livelihood saving programs in countries coping with protracted crises or pre-existing high levels of food insecurity. The UN system on 25 March launched a consolidated humanitarian appeal under which FAO asked donors for $110 million to protect the food security of vulnerable rural populations.

In addition to improve data gathering and analysis to inform decision-making, we will be stabilizing incomes and access to food as well as preserving livelihoods. This means providing smallholder farmers and herders with seeds, tools, livestock feed and other inputs, along with animal health support, so they can continue to produce food for their families and communities and generate income. We will also distribute seeds and home gardening kits, food storage systems, and poultry and other small stock to improve household nutrition and diversify incomes. Similar activities will be undertaken in camps for refugees and the displaced.

Social protection schemes will be a critical tool and we are engaging with governments, local organizations and others to look at ways we can scale up existing systems, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas. One key way to stabilize families' purchasing power will be through injections of cash, so they can meet critical household needs without selling off their assets. 

We'll also work to ensure the continuity of the food supply chain -- including between rural, peri-urban and urban areas -- by supporting through various activities the functioning of local food markets, value chains and systems. And will help make sure that people along the food supply chain are not at risk of COVID-19 transmission, by raising awareness about food safety and health best practices. In this effort, we will be collaborating both, with national authorities and the World Health Organization - as we did in the Ebola crisis.

Many wealthy nations are themselves struggling with COVID-19. Will this affect funding for humanitarian action? 

It is a legitimate worry, but we are seeing some signs it is not the case. Donors are responding to the UN appeal. Countries are pledging support for others, even as they struggle at home. We are confident that this will be the rule, not the exception. 

Why should resources go to agricultural livelihoods and food systems, instead of hospitals? 

While the human health dimension is no doubt hugely important, the concerns we're flagging and the work we're aiming to do will be critical to getting through to the other side without additional and unnecessary human tragedy. Also, if we let people's livelihoods be lost as a result of this pandemic, once the human health crisis has eased, we will have major problems to deal with, afterwards. It is both more humane and strategically smarter to protect and sustain livelihoods now, rather than rebuild them after.

This interview has been produced with the kind collaboration of the FAO Press Office.

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