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A pandemic-driven food crisis in Africa can be prevented

African governments need to act now to ensure small-scale farming and food supply chains remain uninterrupted.

Local farmers work on the land preparing for quinoa variety trials just outside Volcanoes National Park, northern Rwanda in Musanze District on March, 2020 [Photo Credits: Cedric Habiyaremye]
Local farmers work on the land preparing for quinoa variety trials just outside Volcanoes National Park, northern Rwanda in Musanze District on March 6, 2020 [Photo Credit: Cedric Habiyaremye]

We have only just begun to see the far-ranging consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. Chief among those is the threat of a food crisis of unprecedented magnitude. 

Unless measures are taken fast to keep global food supply chains operational and to mitigate the pandemic's impacts across the food system, we will see rapid increases in hunger, particularly in low-income countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Last month, I returned to the United States from Rwanda, where the pandemic forced me to abandon my research with farmers on improving the availability and affordability of nutritious food. It may be months or even years before that and other promising agricultural research to combat hunger and malnutrition can resume.

In the meantime, those farmers and millions more in low-income countries are among those most at risk of not being able to work their land and produce food. They face the dual crisis of a deepening pandemic and already high levels of food insecurity. Of the 257 million hungry people in Africa, the majority live in rural areas.

As African leaders scramble to respond to the coronavirus outbreaks in their countries, they have to pay particular attention to farming communities and make sure that their food production remains unhindered.

Pandemic threats to the food supply

African countries are currently focusing their efforts on blocking the transmission of COVID-19, but they also need to think about how their actions affect food security today and in the future. This crisis is affecting workforces, transportation systems and supply chains - the very basis of how our food gets from field to fork.

Early signs show that the pandemic could severely disrupt both food supply and demand. Disruptions could occur as people who work in the food economy - from farmers to processors, to truck drivers and dock workers - are forced to stay home from work due to either quarantine or illness. This could result in greater food loss and waste, defaults on credit payments, and a rising cost of doing business.

If severe illness spreads widely in rural areas of Africa, where small-scale farmers produce 80 percent of the food consumed, food production may plummet. Farmers and rural communities are highly vulnerable to the disease. Many rural communities lack basic infrastructure for sanitation and shortages of clean water challenge the all-critical need for good hygiene. Underlying medical conditions, which in Africa may include prevalent tropical diseases and malnutrition, could increase vulnerability to the disease. 

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, more than