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In Africa, Coronavirus Adds to Stress of Food Shortages

FILE - Women stand in line for food aid in the village of Makunzi Wali, Central African Republic.

Global agencies have been warning that the coronavirus pandemic may result in worldwide food shortages, and leaders warn African nations – already struggling from the effects of natural disasters and conflicts - could be among the worst hit.

Even before COVID-19 hit, 113 million people on the planet were already struggling with severe acute food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks from natural disasters or crises.

The worst examples are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, where the UN’s food agency says 12 million people were already in dire circumstances due to extended droughts, back-to-back failed harvests, and – on top of it all - hordes of desert locusts that descended on crops and pastures between December and January.

In an April report, the Food Crisis Prevention Network says conflicts have created food shortages and malnutrition in the Lake Chad basin, the Liptako-Gourma region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, and in parts of Nigeria. It says about 17 million people will face a food and nutrition crisis by June-August in the region.

Issoufou Baoua, an expert with the regional grouping, the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel, warns that 50 million people are currently “stressed” and in risk of falling into crisis.

He explained to VOA that these stressed populations can usually feed themselves but cannot manage any other non-food spending. If someone gets sick for example, they would need to sell some of their food stock, which they rely on to survive, to cover the cost. Then, he said, they are in trouble.

The coronavirus pandemic and the measures to contain it are also a challenge. South Africa has extended a national lockdown by two weeks until the end of April as infections continue to mount. Others imposed curfews.

Despite border closures and restrictions within countries, food must remain available, says Sekou Sangare, the Commissioner for Agriculture, Environment and Water Resources of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

Sangare said the necessary lockdown measures should not prevent farmers from selling their products in the markets. Otherwise, he said, it would interrupt the food supply chain, create shortages and increase the prices.

Some NGO’s warn that the remedy could become worse than the disease in countries with fragile economies. The effects of hunger could claim more victims than the virus itself, warns the group Action Against Hunger.

Dr. Pierre Micheletti, the group's president, says lockdown measures mean the end of jobs for people who are trying to survive, mostly with informal jobs. He thinks the whole safety net system and monetary subsidies, that developed countries can have, are an unrealistic notion in developing countries.