When, two weeks ago, I first saw empty shelves in a London supermarket, I felt fearful. Save the Children works with UK families where parents and even children go hungry regularly, but that is because of a lack of money, not a lack of food supply. Restrictions in the supply of sufficient, nutritious food have not been a problem for the UK since the aftermath of the last world war.
In low-income countries, poor people often face problems with both money and the availability of food. We need to think carefully about food and livelihoods before COVID-19 starts to hit poor countries in Africa and South Asia.
So far in Europe, North America and China, we have seen that it is older people who are more likely to become severely ill or die as a result of COVID-19 and that younger, stronger and healthier people are better able to withstand infection. African countries have very young populations and there is speculation that this may reduce the impact. However, many people in the poorest populations in those countries have grown up without good nutrition, impacting both their physical growth and cognitive development. We already know that a severely undernourished child is nine times more likely to die from common infections than a well-nourished child. We need to watch carefully to see if the disease affects younger people differently in these countries.
We are rightly concerned that underfunded and understaffed health services in low-income countries will struggle to cope, and we know that the poorest are already excluded from services when they do not have cash to pay. In these countries, we also need to worry about the economic impact. Restrictions in travel, work and congregation will have devastating effects. Shopping for food means often going to the market to see what is available and whether you can find food within your budget to feed your family. If food production reduces, transport restrictions reduce supplies, visiting markets is prohibited, food prices will rise steeply and the poor will miss out.
In, low-income countries, fewer people work for established employers and more survive through selling goods and services informally. If economic activity reduces, money for food, for housing and for health cash payments will dramatically stop. It is possible that we will see steep increases in malnutrition, bringing their own health threats, especially in areas which are already prone to food crises such as the Sahel.
In Europe, the suspension of normal life has only been possible because there are safety net provisions, even if we think they are too limited. In many low-income countries, these provisions simply do not exist and the money for daily living expenses will have to found from somewhere, increasing household debt. Staying at home is not an option where communities and extended families have to be together to support each other. Migrant workers are returning home when work in cities dries up. Poor water and sanitation means hand-washing is impossible request for some people. Displaced people are especially vulnerable and there are fears for what will happen if outbreaks hit overcrowded refugee camps.
COVID-19 is already affecting every aspect of life and the economic downtown could last for years. This is why Save the Children is calling for a global action plan. Food is the most immediate and daily necessity that is threatened. Fear of not having enough to eat is affecting all of us. But it is in low income countries where it could quickly become a reality.