Africa, especially, at risk of food shortage due to Covid-19

A Zimbabwean health worker. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
A Zimbabwean health worker. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO Geneva — The coronavirus pandemic threatens to cause food shortages for hundreds of millions of people, especially in Africa, the UN warned on Friday.

In poorer countries that rely on exports to pay for food imports, middle-class people could end up needing food aid to survive the Covid-19 crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.

“Generally, we are used to dealing with a supply-side shock, such as a drought, or a demand-side shock, such as a recession — but here it is both … and at a global level,” said WFP chief economist Arif Husain. “This makes it truly, truly unprecedented,” he told Geneva-based reporters in a virtual briefing from Rome.

Trade underpins food security in countries with local production shortfalls, the WFP explained in a report.

The world’s transport system moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybean to feed 2.8-billion people, it said. There are almost 212-million chronically food-insecure and 95-million acutely food-insecure people in poorer countries, said the WFP.

Africa, in particular Sub-Saharan Africa, which imported more than 40-million tonnes of cereals in 2018, is the continent most at risk. Somalia and South Sudan are the most exposed to any disruption in grain supplies, while other countries, such as Angola, Nigeria and Chad, depend on exports to pay for food imports.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world has soared past 1-million, of which about 220,000 have recovered and fatalities have topped 55,000. According to the latest daily tally compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), by Friday, there have been 4,700 confirmed cases in Africa and 127 deaths.


Husain said the WFP is assisting 80-million to 90-million people each year, but the numbers are expected to swell because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are going to be millions more,” he said. “Think about all of the job losses; think about urban populations; middle-class; daily wage earners; informal economy people, who generally are hand to-mouth to begin with … these are the people we think are essentially the new caseload.”

Petroleum-exporting countries such as Iran and Iraq, and war-ravaged states such as Yemen and Syria are also deemed among the most vulnerable to food shortages.

Some food-exporting ports are facing disruption. A major grain-exporting port in Argentina has blocked trucks, while Brazilian workers are mulling a strike at South America’s biggest port for corn and soybeans exports, the WFP said.

The French grain sector is struggling with shortages of workers and trucks amid rising export demands and panic-buying, it added.

Furthermore, prices could rise due to supplemental purchases by major traders or governments that fear a break in the supply chain.

The prices of basic foodstuffs (oils, cereals, meats, dairy products) have tended to fall sharply due to the prospects of an economic slump, according to the monthly index of food prices published on Thursday by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.


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