Covid-19 response must include provision of food to the vulnerable
In Vietnam, automatic rice dispensing machines, also known as "rice ATMs" have been used during this Covid-19 outbreak to distribute rice to Vietnamese who are out of work.
One of the unwanted repercussions of the lockdowns implemented by governments to reduce the spread of COVID-19 disease is increased hunger, especially in developing and poor countries. Even before the disease outbreak caused by the new coronavirus, over 820 million people were already suffering from chronic hunger globally, according to a 2019 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). In Africa, nearly 250 million people did not have enough food before the pandemic.
Despite being the largest economy in Africa, Oxfam International says more than 112 million people are living in poverty in Nigeria. Lockdown restrictions were initially enforced in Lagos, the country’s economic hub, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Ogun State, before curfews were implemented in other parts of the country. Since the curfews were announced, both rural and urban populations have experienced hardship.
Lockdowns in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja have been eased after five weeks. But tight restrictions remain in other places. During this period, the urban poor who live hand-to-mouth have suffered the most. Last month, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the expansion of the National Social Register by one million more people to 3.6 million to increase the disbursement of cash transfers to more people. But recently, a number of beneficiaries of the administration’s National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) said they have not accessed any relief packages.
Many Nigerians have lost their jobs, while some employees were not paid as various private establishment had to scale down their operations or shut down completely. The situation is probably the same for many African countries who have had to take strict measures to keep people safe.
Nigerian and other African governments must understand that good nutrition is a necessity for good health. Hunger and malnutrition can severely suppress the body’s resistance to infections and diseases. Therefore, strong commitments should be made by federal and state governments to feed citizens during this pandemic. Without a doubt, people living in underserved communities need a lot of support at this time. Even those who are well-off have been affected by the pandemic and are at the risk of suffering from hunger.
One way to go about solving food needs during these challenging times is to make food banks available in every local government area in the country or in each of the senatorial districts. The food banks would not be available just for the poor. Everyone in need of food aid should be able to access the food banks. With a wide network of food banks around the country, it will be easy to distribute food while practicing social distancing and feeding the hungry during the pandemic.
In the United States, for example, thousands of cars wait in lines outside food banks to get food. In one day in April, 10,000 cars were shown waiting for emergency food aid distributed by the San Antonio Food Bank, in Texas.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organisation, has about 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries. Last year, the organisation distributed 4.3 billion meals to more than 40 million Americans. In Vietnam, automatic rice dispensing machines, also known as "rice ATMs" have been used during this Covid-19 outbreak to distribute rice to Vietnamese who are out of work.
There are also a few food banks in Nigeria, one of which is the Lagos Food Bank Initiative (LFBI), a non-profit committed to fighting hunger, reducing food waste and solving malnutrition problem. Founded in 2015, LFBI has been distributing food during the current pandemic. There is a need to explore more innovative ways to solve hunger problems in Nigeria.
Governmental and non-governmental organisations, individuals, solidarity networks all have to play their part. While credit must be given to health workers who are highly essential frontliners during this pandemic, food producers and distributors are also essential workers whose services are needed to complement health workers by making food available for the populace. Therefore, governments must guard against unjustified restrictive measures that create disruptions of food supply chains.
The coronavirus pandemic underscores the importance of adequate local food production. Many countries now have to depend on local food producers and industries to survive. Government’s support for local food production is a very essential relief strategy. Access to seeds, fertilizer and other farm inputs should remain open. This is a time to boost farm support schemes, too.
Clearly, navigating the various levels of movement restrictions in different states in the country create operational hindrances to many of the aforementioned items in the value chain. Nevertheless, protective materials and proper enlightenment needs to be given to farm workers who are mostly in rural communities where most farming operations take place.
Government directives should also be clear with regard to granting unrestrictive access for distribution of food items to food retailers, food markets and food banks. Lack of clear directive is what led to the panic-buying of food when the lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja was first announced, leading to increased food inflation and even price gouging. The need to provide food sellers in open markets with equitable access to protective materials and awareness campaigns to curb Covid-19 transmission in the market environment cannot be overempha-sized.
While federal and state governments increase their efforts to secure more coronavirus test kits, they should also include more vitamin and protein-rich functional foods, such as whole grains and pulses as part of the relief packages for the poor. It is my hope that one of the key lessons from this pandemic would be the need to further support agriculture and local food production, preservation and supply in Nigeria.
In addition to the efforts of governments and social enterprises to create more food banks, public and private sector institutions should work together to mobilise innovative responses to boost investment in the agriculture sector in Nigeria. Such cooperation will go a long way to ensuring food affordability and accessibility. It will also foster food security in the country and prevent the type of violent attacks many households in Lagos and Ogun suffered during the lockdown.
Covid-19 has caused many people to lose not only income but also valuable sources of income. In a country where millions of people have no social safety net, hunger can crystalise into a more immediate threat to life than the Covid-19 disease. Effective strategies to address hunger can help to safeguard lives and property.
Financial Nigeria Columnist, Mojisola Karigidi, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.
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