By Akanimo Sampson
Millions of starving people around the world are increasingly struggling to have access to food as incomes fall and food prices rise due to the merciless COVID-19 pandemic.
This is happening even when the pandemic's full-scale and long-term impact on food security is yet to be revealed. Yet, evidence shows that in countries already hit by acute hunger, citizens are struggling to get food.
Apparently shaken, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is seeking $350 million to scale up hunger-fighting and livelihoods-boosting activities in food crisis contexts where COVID-19's impact could be devastating.
Nigeria is certainly not an exception. Even before the outbreak of the hard-hitting COVID-19, hunger has been a major problem in the Niger Delta, the country’s polluted oil and gas region as well as the North-East where the Boko Haram conflict has displaced millions and disrupted farming activities.
Now, the Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, is saying that it is not yet Uhuru for the country's economy to open full blast for businesses.
He says the modest progress made in battling the raging pandemic notwithstanding, opening the economy fully is not currently on the table for government because of the huge implications and health risks.
Mustapha was speaking as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed on Monday night that, COVID-19 positive cases in the country have zoomed to 6,175.
This figure was made possible by the 216 new cases recorded in the country, and sadly, nine new deaths that has taken the number of fatalities to 191.
The government scribe however said the current partial lockdown of the country will continue because time is not ripe to relax the containment protocols against the virus.
‘’The reality is that in spite of the modest progress made, Nigeria is not yet ready for full opening of the economy and tough decisions have to be taken for the good of the greater majority. Any relaxation will only portend grave danger for our populace.
‘’Advisedly, the current phase of eased restriction will be maintained for another two weeks during which stricter enforcement and persuasion measures will be pursued’’, he says.
Analysts say Abuja's position on extending the eased lockdown is strengthened by the latest COVID-19 figures captured by the NCDC, indicating that so far 35,345 samples have been tested in Nigeria since the outbreak of the pandemic, and also pointing out that of the 6,175 confirmed cases in the country, 4,339 are active cases.
Interestingly, 1644 patients have been treated and discharged from isolation centres and accredited hospitals across 34 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.
Of the 216 new cases from 15 states of the federation, Lagos recorded 74 cases, Katsina 33, Oyo 19, Kano 17, Edo 13, Zamfara 10, Ogun, Borno and Gombe eight cases each, Bauchi and Kwara seven cases each, Abuja four, Kaduna and Enugu three cases each and Rivers two.
In the mean time, in the Boko Haram-troubled parts of Northern Nigeria where farmers do not have access to their fields, do not have the means to buy seeds and other inputs to plant or buy feed for their animals, this planting seasons will be missed, cultivation will drop significantly and animals will be lost.
Without the doubt, this implies that less food will become available too - in both rural and urban areas.
FAO Director-General, Qu Dongyu, at a Monday briefing on the UN agency's revised humanitarian response to COVID-19 warns, "we cannot wait until we finish dealing with the health impacts before we turn to food security. If we don't start implementing livelihoods assistance now, we will face multiple food crises, and a bill many times greater."
For FAO's Director of Emergencies, Dominique Burgeon, "more and more global leaders are stressing that the pandemic could cost more lives in hunger than in those actually infected by the virus. The worst-case scenario is not a foregone conclusion, but we have to act fast - and at scale."
Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ramesh Rajasingham, says "it's becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic's impacts go far beyond health.
"Acting early can prevent increasing vulnerabilities but also be a much more cost effective way of addressing this crisis. The role of emergency livelihoods interventions to save lives and livelihoods, and pull back people from the verge of famine is critical.
‘’agriculture-based livelihoods are critical in most countries we work in as they are the main source of income for the majority of vulnerable populations. And this relies on seasons that cannot be missed or skipped."
New funding request to respond to growing needs
FAO's new funding request of $350 million is about three times more than in late March as COVID-19's staggering socioeconomic impacts become more evident.
Additional funding is urgently required to address new needs emerging from COVID-19. New activities will build upon critical livelihood-saving support currently being delivered, including:
In South Sudan for instance, FAO carried out its largest seed distribution so that farmers do not miss the main planting season.
To date, FAO has distributed over four million kilograms of the procured and pre-positioned eight million kilograms of crop and vegetable seeds, and over 100 000 agricultural hand tools to about 1,8million people. This means that each family can grow enough food for at least 6 months and sell some surplus. In addition, nearly 50 000 people received fishing kits.
In Somalia, FAO fully transitioned its cash assistance to mobile cash delivery, and, over the last 60 days, transferred over four million dollars in mobile money to help 200 000 Somalis access food and other basic needs. FAO has registered more than 2.1 million people on its Mobile Money Platform.
In addition, 240 000 Somalis are receiving e-vouchers via SMS to get seeds, farm tools, irrigation service and storage bags from local traders. This way, FAO reinjects money into the local economy and avoids supply chain delays due to COVID-19.
In Syria, FAO supported vegetable producers to set up nurseries, which are estimated to bring farmers an additional income of almost $2 000 per year.
In Pakistan, FAO carried out an online campaign, engaging 160 000 people to learn about preventing food waste, and raise awareness, including through its farmer field schools, on how to stay safe of COVID-19 transmission.
In Haiti, FAO distributed seeds and other inputs to nearly 50 000 people ahead of the main agricultural campaign.
Overall, FAO's humanitarian response to COVID-19 impacts will focus on: improving hunger data collection and analysis so that organisations can respond more effectively; maintaining food production, including through scaling up activities so that farmers can take advantage of coming plating seasons; ramping up support to post-production activities, like harvesting, storage, small-scale food processing and conservation, and linking producers to markets to ensure food supply chains stay functional; and, awareness-raising so that people keeping the food supply chains alive are not at risk of COVID-19 transmission.
There is a growing risk of famine in some countries, potentially even several famines occurring at the same time.
Even before the pandemic, some 135 million were experiencing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity, out of which 27million people in "emergency" levels of acute food insecurity - on the brink of famine.
Somalia is currently experiencing multiple shocks, including Desert Locust, flooding and COVID-19. The FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) warned in May that some 3.5million Somalis are in "crisis" level of acute food insecurity and above through September 2020 - a three-fold increase compared to early 2020, over 100percent greater than hunger figures in an average year, and worse than in 2017, when there was a high risk of famine.
In Afghanistan, more than one in three Afghans - some 10.3million people- are projected to be acutely food insecure between June and November.
In Bangladesh, breakdowns in transportation systems are leading to the dumping of perishable food products and dramatic price reductions at the farm-gate, affecting producers' food security.
In Southeast Asia, COVID-19 is overlapping with a subregional drought.
In Syria, since mid-March, there have been price increases of 40-50 per cent in staple foods.
For many high-risk countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the period between April and June coincides with the planting season for main crops.
Net food-importing countries (e.g. Caribbean countries, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela) are particularly vulnerable due to currency devaluation and trade constraints.
In East Africa and the Near East, where 42 million people are facing acute food insecurity, curving the desert locust outbreak is critical to safeguarding livelihoods and food security.
While there is a high potential for a significant rise in acute food insecurity at crisis level and above in the coming months, this is not inevitable.
Qu says ‘’if we support livelihoods now we can help to reduce needs and avoid growing hunger. And protect the most vulnerable from the collateral effects of the pandemic", adding, ‘’ donors were generous and fast in responding to the desert locust upsurge during the past months. We need this continued
generosity and advocacy to prevent a steep rise in acute hunger. Thank you for your action now."