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COVID-19 marks beginning of looming food crisis

The impact of the virus and the measures to counteract them are intensifying the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition worldwide, but innovative, coordinated and human rights-based responses can rescue us from disaster, warns a new FIAN International report.

Twelve years after the food price crisis in 2007/2008, the world finds itself in the midst of one of the most dramatic global, multifold, crises of our times. The pandemic of COVID-19 is not only leading humanity to an unprecedented health emergency, where the shortcomings of our health care and social systems are being most exposed, but it is also exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.

As echoed by a monitoring report released today by FIAN International, the impacts of the pandemic and the measures to stop contagion are intensifying ongoing human rights violations that prevent people’s access to adequate food. Those who are already in situations of marginalization and vulnerability due to low socio-economic status, racism, sexism and other types of discrimination are facing a higher risk of food insecurity. 

Albeit triggered by COVID-19 and the preventative measures that have been put in place to contain it, the emerging food crisis finds its foundations in decades of neoliberal policies and practices that have been exacerbating disparity and discrimination. This, the report argues, is why not only targeted measures are needed to face this pandemic, but also public policies that fundamentally change the way in which our societies are organized and the economic system operates. We simply cannot go back to normality.

The Preliminary Monitoring Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Human Right to Food and Nutrition lists the dire impacts of the current crisis on people’s lives and also highlights local and national responses, including by grassroots communities and social movements, that can serve as an inspiration elsewhere. On the basis of these preliminary findings and of the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition, FIAN International gives a series of recommendations for governments the world over.

Impacts on access and even distribution

People’s inclination to panic-buy and hoard food due to a fear of scarcity during times of crisis is leading to shortages of certain types of food. This means that affordable prices and availability of food are being kept out of reach for those with limited mobility or resources. Likewise, access to adequate food has been restricted by virtue of prioritizing supermarket chains over local markets and local cooperatives as food distributors. In practical terms, ultra-processed and industrialized products are more readily available than fresh and organic food sustainably produced by peasants and other small-scale food producers (like  fisherfolks), which doesn’t only have a dire impact on the income of the latter, but also prevent people from accessing healthy and diverse diets.

Indeed, restrictions in terms of access and quality are expected to impact more severely those already facing hunger and malnutrition. Simply put, those who are overweight and obese - both forms of malnutrition - who account for more than 1.9 billion and 650 million adults respectively around the world-  are more likely to develop more severe symptoms and complications when infected with COVID-19. Equally, those who are undernourished, who accounted for 821 million already before the outbreak, have a lower immunity to fight against the virus.

If measures restricting mobility to prevent contagion have deeply affected one demographic in particular, it is the hundreds of thousands of temporary, seasonal – often migrant- workers, who are unable to travel for their work. This is not only sparking concerns about loss of employment opportunities and income for this group, but also of a looming shortage of fresh produce and a substantial amount of wasted food.

Successful community, government responses

In times of crisis, calls for moral responsibility and solidarity are not always enough and state regulations are sometimes necessary. In order to counter potential food price volatility and shortages of essential foods, Argentina and Colombia have introduced measures to regulate prices and ensure rationalization of essential products. 

As shelves in supermarkets were being emptied and fresh food was piling up and perishing in local farms, peasant organizations have also actively mobilized in France and Romania to oppose the closure of peasant markets. This has led to government guidelines that clarify that local food markets should take place, while following measures to ensure sanitary conditions to prevent contagion. Similarly, social protests by food street vendors have led to significant reactions in countries like South Africa, where grocery stores, wholesale produce markets and informal food traders are allowed to remain open. This will ensure that marginalized and poor households are less at risk of food and nutrition insecurity. 

In some countries the closure of schools is reducing the access to food for children, or has replaced school feeding programs with fast food. Civil society initiatives in countries like India are advocating for programs that ensure home-delivery of nutritious meals to children, as well as to pregnant and lactating mothers. 

The current situation requires urgent action to contain the pandemic, but so too to prevent further exclusion and social injustice, concludes the report in its recommendations. From protecting the world’s main food providers, peasants and other rural workers, to ensuring tailored mechanisms to protect those most marginalized, there are a number of measures that can substantially improve the lives of millions in this looming food crisis.

You can read the report here.
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Call to action to counteract COVID-19 impact