Before the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 820 million people did not get enough food to eat. As countries deal with this unprecedented pandemic, a danger exists that the crisis will push many more people into hunger. Indeed, the entire global food system may face shocks that will exacerbate the economic and health challenges millions of people around the world face.
The majority of hungry people work in agriculture as producers or laborers, and millions more people living on the edge of poverty work in food value chains. Women are especially vulnerable to food insecurity. As producers, for example, women often face formal and informal barriers to accessing the tools, resources, inputs and financing needed to be successful, earn a decent living from agriculture and escape poverty. The pandemic exasperates their situation and could be disastrous in countries suffering from pervasive poverty, poor healthcare infrastructure, and the absence of robust social safety nets.
Here in the United States, workers in grocery stores are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, risking exposure and possible illness in order to serve us. Many go to work every day because they need a paycheck and cannot afford to miss work. Seventy percent of retail cashiers are women – and women also do the bulk of unpaid care work at home.
Supermarket workers stock the shelves and help us check out, yet too many do not have access to paid sick leave or proper equipment and training to protect themselves. This isn’t right.
Oxfam is calling on US grocery stores to take crucial steps to support the workers in their stores and ensure they remain safe and healthy. Specifically, they must: provide paid sick leave for all their workers, ensure all workers have proper protective equipment and training in order to stay safe, and talk to their workers to develop the best solutions to meet these challenges.
Globally it seems increasingly likely that there will be disruptions to food production and increased food prices. COVID-19 could cause four potential shocks to the global food system leading to increased hunger for millions of people:
1. Supply shocks: As countries take drastic measure to stop transmission of COVID-19, extreme measures such as restricting the movement of people or goods could create significant supply shocks. If farmers fall sick or laborers are not able to move, fields may not be planted or harvested.
2. Price shocks: export restrictions, supply disruptions, production shortfalls and hoarding of food can all lead to increasing prices for basic staple foods like the rice, maize and wheat people rely on for daily sustenance.
3. Income shocks: as economies shut down and people are quarantined, the economic impact will be severe and dramatic, causing a sharp decrease in people’s ability to purchase food and other basic necessities including medicine and soap.
4. Nutrition shocks: As families are forced to shelter in place and access to healthy fresh foods is curtailed, they may resort to eating packaged and processed foods higher in fat, sodium and sugar. As women often eat last and eat less, they are at high risk of malnutrition when food insecurity within households is threatened.
As we take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is critical to mitigate the potential negative impacts on food security. Governments must take proactive measures to protect the food supply chain, support the continued operation of markets, avoid harmful export restrictions, provide basic social and livelihood protection for households, and facilitate the ability of farmers to continue to operate. It is especially important that government action focuses on women and vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, who are most likely to experience the worst impact of the coronavirus crisis and are least able to cope.
An unprecedented pandemic calls for a response that engaged with local experts and communities that is carried out with a sense of shared humanity. Oxfam is working with partners in more than 50 countries and here in the US to meet the needs of those who are suffering the worst impacts of COVID-19. And although we might be isolated, we are not alone. Each of us has a role to play and we hope you will join us to stand up for the most vulnerable among us around the world.