How COVID-19 controls are hitting farmers in 7 low-income countries, mostly in Africa

In countries with the tightest controls, 80% of smallholder households reported major disturbances

Since its onset more than two years ago, COVID-19 has reached almost every corner of the globe. It has infected hundreds of millions of people and overwhelmed health systems around the world. But its impact goes beyond its direct health consequences.

Measures to contain its spread – such as travel restrictions and lockdowns – have also had serious consequences for savings and food systems global.

Despite the global impact, the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions vary widely from individual to individual. In the West, massive stimulus spending has helped ease the economic burden of lockdowns. In low- and middle-income countries, drops employment and income have rivaled or surpassed those of wealthier countries.

But most people in poor countries have received no financial support and have little or no savings to fall back on.

Research shows that a disproportionate burden pandemic-related restrictions have fallen on the world’s poorest. This raised the question of how best to tailor mitigation efforts to different types of economies.

My colleagues and I have sought to shed some light on this issue. Our to research examined the impact of pandemic restrictions on smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries.

In line with the existing to research on the negative impacts of pandemic restrictions, farmers in low- and middle-income countries reported that COVID-19 measures were negatively impacting food purchase, income generation and access to inputs.

Food safety

The focus on smallholder farmers is relevant. This group contributes major part of food production in many countries. They are also vulnerable to food insecurity and poverty.

We conducted over 9,000 interviews with smallholder farmers in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia. The seven countries reflect the diversity of COVID-19 containment measures and all rely heavily on smallholders for food supply.

Containment measures ranged from no restrictions in Burundi and Tanzania to closures of public spaces, mandatory quarantines and travel restrictions in Rwanda and Vietnam. This diversity allowed us to assess how the severity of COVID-19 restrictions affected the livelihoods and food security of smallholder farmers.

Our results also indicate that the severity of these impacts was directly related to the stringency of the measures.

For countries with the tightest control, up to 80% of smallholder households reported major disruptions, mainly in their ability to purchase food due to high prices and closed markets.

Under strict regulations, most smallholders have also reported income reductions of 50% on average. The decline was due to few job opportunities, low prices for agricultural products and difficulty in accessing markets. This affected households with off-farm and on-farm incomes.

In contrast, negative economic and food security outcomes were less frequent and less severe in places where measures were relaxed. Only around 20% of smallholders reported negative results in Burundi and Tanzania. This confirms the growing link between strict restrictions and increased poverty and food insecurity in vulnerable areas.

Government support

Reports of loss of income and difficulty buying food are not unique to smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries. Around the world, people either lost their jobs or saw empty grocery shelves when the pandemic first hit.

What differentiates the experience of smallholder farmers in poor countries from that of their Western counterparts is government assistance and the resulting coping tactics.

The overwhelming majority of farmers we interviewed said they received no public support. Unable to turn to their government for help, up to 80% of smallholder farmers in areas under strict control have been forced to reduce their food consumption. Other coping methods included selling livestock, selling unplanned crops, withdrawing savings, and taking out risky loans.

These findings have profound implications as coping methods reduce the buffer capacity of smallholder households and make them vulnerable to future shocks. In many poor smallholder households, the means of coping have likely forced them into deprivation.

Overall, our results draw more attention to the political choice between life and livelihood. It reveals an almost impossible trade-off between saving lives from the pandemic and losing lives to deprivation.

Our conclusions are supported by recent economic analyzes showing that the cost-benefit ratio of COVID-19 measures can differ significantly from country to country. Optimal confinement is likely to be less stringent in low- and middle-income countries that seek to prevent deprivation.

Researchers are not the only ones to understand this. A recent media analysis of how the pandemic was discussed in five African countries shows that popular media recognized the impacts of food insecurity long before many scientific studies were published. Popular accounts presented the situation as a balance between containing the virus and food security. This ultimately prompted governments to adapt official policy responses and ease restrictions.

In other words, the world is slowly realizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. To research shows that strict measures can successfully prevent excess deaths. But if these measures are introduced in poor countries without the required financial assistance, they can harm the health of the people they are meant to protect.

What works for poor countries

Therefore, the relevance of any crisis mitigation depends on the needs of local populations as well as the ability of local government to support them.

Crisis mitigation must guard against the depletion of the buffer capacity of vulnerable households. Potential policy measures to ensure this include tiered mobility restrictions that allow travel for economic reasons, short-term price guarantees to stabilize the food system, and direct support to rural households.

As governments battle this pandemic and prepare for future crises, they can no longer shy away from considering the trade-offs between restrictions and welfare. When COVID-19 hit, we weren’t ready to make informed decisions about trade-offs. The world’s poorest have borne the brunt of the consequences.

Our latest study is part of a growing body of research that provides the tools we need to deal with these trade-offs. By considering the costs and benefits to local people, policy makers can craft measures that save lives and protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

james hammondResearcher, agricultural systems analyst, International Livestock Research Institute ; Dan MilnerEconomist, expert in spatial statistics, International Livestock Research Institute and Mark van WijkResearcher, expert in modeling and forecasting, International Livestock Research Institute

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

About Cassondra Durden

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