Gunther Beger is Director-General of the Department “Policy issues of development cooperation; civil society, churches and private sector; rural development“ at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Berlin, Germany.

Developing countries hit doubly hard by coronavirus

In most African countries, COVID-19 is likely to trigger a combined health and food crisis. In order to cope with this unprecedented crisis, consistently aligning our policies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is more important than ever, our author maintains.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, life has changed beyond recognition. This applies to all of us, all over the world, but the worst effects of the pandemic will be felt by countries and people who are already living with poverty, hunger and poor governance. 

In densely populated neighbourhoods, social distancing rules are largely unworkable, and even under normal circumstances, millions of people have no access to clean water, let alone disinfectant. Health systems are weak, and protective clothing, ventilators and specialists are in short supply. In Africa, many people have underlying health conditions such as HIV or malaria, greatly increasing their risk of serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19.

However, focusing solely on the health sector is by no means enough. In most African countries, COVID-19 is not only set to become a major health emergency; it is also likely to trigger a combined health and food crisis. In some African countries, fruit and vegetable prices have already risen sharply, as the Daily Food Prices Monitor, available on the FAO website, shows. 

These price rises hit the poorest population groups particularly hard. Even before the pandemic, most of their income was spent on food. The worry is that the reduced availability of healthy and nutritious food such as fruit and vegetables, on the one hand, and limited purchasing power, on the other, will lead to a significant increase in undernourishment and malnutrition, with children, sadly, among the worst affected. 

The food crisis may well hit the African countries before or at the same time as the health emergency. What is certain is that the two aspects of the crisis are mutually reinforcing: the measures adopted to protect health – such as lockdowns and border closures – worsen the food and economic crisis; anyone who is already undernourished or suffering from malnutrition is also more vulnerable to serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19. 

Reports are reaching us from our partners around the world about the impacts of the pandemic on agricultural production and food security. In many countries, the massive restrictions on free movement are already causing labour shortages and logistical and transport problems. The reduced availability of rural workers will lead to crop losses on a massive scale, particularly for labour-intensive products such as fruit and vegetables. The growing season in many regions normally starts in May, but this is now at acute risk, and if sowing does not take place, there will be no harvest. At the same time, the restrictions on movement are causing substantial income losses, particularly among rural workers, with entire families struggling to survive.

In some countries, supply chains for inputs such as seed, fertiliser and animal feed have been disrupted by the border shutdowns and restrictions on movement introduced in response to the pandemic. Smallholders, whose livelihoods depend on viable supply chains, are at risk of sliding back into subsistence farming, resulting in a drastic loss of income. The increase in value-added through agricultural processing in recent years is likely to be wiped out. 

In Kenya, for example, only the major markets are still functioning at present under the government-imposed lockdown. Supply chains to and from remote regions have broken down. Much of the milk output is not reaching the collection points, so most smallholders are now starting to consume their milk themselves again or are selling small quantities to neighbours, for example. However, without storage, transport and cooling facilities, this is only possible to a very limited extent. Most of the milk is turning sour, eliminating the smallholders’ main source of income and cutting off the supply to the urban population. 

Turning to Zambia, the shutdown of borders with its neighbours means that the country is more or less cut off from the outside world. In combination with domestic travel restrictions, this has massively curtailed the flow of goods. As a result, production inputs and imported foods will become more difficult to access. The prices of staple foods such as rice and potatoes have already surged over the past month. Zambian households are reacting by scaling back their consumption of nutritious foods. This leads to undernourishment and particularly endangers child nutrition.

International agricultural trade and global agricultural supply chains are badly affected as well. Storage facilities throughout the world are full and a good harvest is forecast, so it should – in theory – be possible to rule out supply bottlenecks. However, distribution is a key issue. In recent weeks, deliveries of tropical fruit from South-East Asia were disrupted as a result of a backlog in Asian ports, where refrigerated containers could not be unloaded on time. 

As in previous crises, we are already seeing some countries resorting to protectionist measures. At the end of March, the government of Kazakhstan banned the export of certain foods, including wheat flour, sunflower oil, sugar, potatoes and some vegetables. The Vietnamese government – normally a key exporter of rice to Africa – has not signed any new rice export contracts for the time being: it wants to ensure that local rice stores are full in order to guarantee the domestic food supply.

We know from experience that trade-restrictive measures such as these have negative impacts across the board. They pose an immediate risk to supply chains that have taken time and effort to establish and where mutual dependency among stakeholders helps to sustain market equilibrium. So it is all the more crucial to keep the global food trade operating and to remove these newly introduced export restrictions. In this way, local food shortages can be avoided and stability of world market prices achieved.

In trade as elsewhere, then, it is clear that we will only overcome this crisis through global cooperation, not isolation. The pandemic casts our high level of interdependence into sharp relief. No country will win the war on the virus on its own. We are reliant on each other and must therefore closely coordinate our response. Germany’s Development Minister Dr Gerd Müller has therefore advocated strongly for the creation of a world crisis management institution headed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. We must cluster and build up our resources within this framework – and apply nexus thinking to the health and food crisis: from multilateral structures and emergency aid (WHO, WFP) to the international financial architecture and debt relief (IMF, World Bank) and maintaining and developing supply chains and trade systems (WTO, EU).

We will provide short-term support in order to contain and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic in developing countries – and we will do so precisely because we are long-term partners. This applies particularly to the food and agriculture sector. Here, the networks set up under the BMZ’s ONE WORLD – No Hunger initiative are particularly valuable. We are using the green innovation centres that operate in 14 African countries and India, and which now have a network of tens of thousands of smallholders, small businesses, farmers’ organisations and associations extending deep into rural areas, as a basis for providing country-specific, needs-based support. 

In Ethiopia and Benin, for example, we are supplying seed and smaller items of machinery to our partners as a short-term measure to ensure that sowing is not put at risk, and we are also covering increased delivery costs. In Burkina Faso, we are helping to raise public awareness of COVID-19 via a radio programme. Here and also in Malawi and Ghana, we are funding hygiene equipment for our partners for use in production facilities. In India, we are procuring animal feed. In Tunisia, we focus on hygiene measures in the dairy industry and have supplied 1,500 harvest workers with protective clothing. 

These are not rigidly organised measures; they are a response to the highly specific needs of our in-country partners. When you have been working closely with individuals and institutions for many years, as we have done, providing this kind of direct support is a given. It also helps in demonstrating that European solidarity with Africa is about action as well as words: a friend in need is a friend indeed. 

This pandemic poses immense challenges for the international community. It is causing untold suffering and devastation on a global scale. I am sure that in many places, rapid, straightforward and trust-based support will continue to make all the difference. That is why we are restructuring our budgets and mobilising funding. It is too early to draw any conclusions – even preliminary ones – at this stage. But I believe that consistently aligning our policies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is more important and relevant than ever. 

These global goals find expression in many realms, from the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal to our engagement for more social and environmental sustainability in global supply chains. Now is not the time to call these political goals into question, as some parties with vested interests are already doing; on the contrary, we must continue to work towards these goals with even greater commitment.

Despite the dramatic scale of the crisis, it also offers opportunities to change the world for the better. Not only will we see digitalisation speed up considerably. Questions will have to be addressed with heightened urgency: How can we make agriculture more resilient to future crises? How can we generate local value-added, e.g. through more local processing? What role can agroecology play? How can we redesign agricultural research to improve our understanding of zoonotic diseases, for example? 

Right now, this is hard to imagine, for we are still at the start of our efforts to cope with this unprecedented crisis. Nevertheless, perhaps there is a glimmer of light on the horizon: the hope that our globalised world will emerge from this crisis stronger and more united than before. That must continue to be our goal. 

Gunther Beger is Director-General of the Department “Policy issues of development cooperation; civil society, churches and private sector; rural development“ at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Berlin, Germany.