Bouncing back from COVID-19: Lessons from the food crisis

The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation

By Suresh Chandra Babu and Vaishali Dassani

Globally, COVID-19 is a public health emergency with grave impact on the population of the world, especially the poor and marginalized.  It is estimated that 140 million additional people could fall into extreme poverty this year as a result of the virus, thus increasing food and nutrition insecurity.While much has been written about the potential impact, little is known on how to bounce back from such outbreaks.

Countries of the world have been fighting to contain COVID-19. On March 25, 2020 India took an early action of nationwide lockdown, but this hit those below the poverty line the hardest,especially those in the informal sectorwith little or no savings and unable to work at this time.Though there was limited disruption in supply, the Food and Agriculture Organization expects a shift in the supply of and demand for food and warns of a global food crisis if the poor and malnourished are not protected. Despite significant efforts by India, the impact of COVID-19 is likely to hamper its progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This crisis calls for policy and investment for long term economic development to build resilient food systems.

Health emergencies remain a constant threat to developing countries and local populations. The response of countries to COVID-19 has been different from management of other outbreaks such as SARS, Avian Flu and Ebola. Managing natural disasters such as drought, floods, locust infestation, manmade ones such as conflicts, and the global food crisis require institutional capacities of countries to bounce back to normalcy.

The global food crisis of 2007-2008, for example, was a wake-up call.It was not only a food crisis but a combined result offailure of the financial system and concomitant fuel crisis. It was not new for certain regions to face food crisis, particularly in parts of Africa, where countries have been battling food-related emergencies for the past 60 years. However, the realization that countries did not have their policy and institutional mechanisms in place to face such emergencies was relatively new. The food crisis also has implications for how the globalized food markets and related international and national institutions and their entities should prepare to manage such crises.

Over the past 12 years in the post-food crisis period, we have learnt several key lessons on managing or preventing a globalcrisis and moving on to build resilient food systems at the global, regional, and national levels. Here are four important lessons.

  1. Effective action-oriented response system: In the case of a food crisis, countries with reasonably well-established safety-nets for vulnerable populations were better prepared to manage the food crisis. While organizing emergency interventions in a focused area or on a large scale requires adequate financial and human resourcesand a system that reaches out to people, functions well, and reduces time involved in designing and implementing responses to emergencies. Effective action oriented-response systems–such as the safety-net system to reach out and transfer food and or cash payment, regularly updated for institutional and human capacities in a context-specific manner – can help contain the spread and the livelihood impact of disease outbreaks.
  2. Generating and communicating knowledge based on evidence: In food emergencies, the basic and foundational information needed to respond includes, information on who the most vulnerable peopleare and how are they affected by the crisis. In addition, their precise location, the approaches communities make to ward off the crisis, and information on the already existing institutional infrastructure help design local and context-specific interventions. This information is useful for short-run interventions and can be effectively used to transition from emergency to long-term development assistance, through opportunities to build resilience of communities.Such infrastructure and rapid communication of knowledge over a wide geographic area is critical to contain the spread of a public health crisis, such as COVID-19 and bounce back with a high level of resilience.
  3. Capacity to forewarn, address, and stop the negative consequences of health emergencies: Food system interventions in the areas of early warning systems and the rapid assessment methods developed for food and nutrition related intervention can be connected to the health system in the case of health emergencies. However, developing such evidence-based intervention mechanisms will require local capacities including for primary health care facilities and communities themselves. In addition, capacity to communicate the results of the evidence generated and providing feedback on interventions and their implementation require well developed communication channels that link local authorities to the national and global systems.
  4. Build stronger and resilient health systems: During the food crisis, countries that had policy, institutional and human capacities to manage emerging crisis in place significantly protected their population in a shorttime and with limited additional investments. The food system and its entities,including agricultural farms, consumer households, institutions, organizations, and the policy process that affect the functioning of these entities were already operating more effectively, efficiently and sustainably. Similarly, a well-functioning health system consists of various actors ranging from national health care facilities  to the regional and primary health care outlets reaching out to the affected population even in remote areas can help in effective containment.

In developing countries and emerging economies such as India, where health emergencies do not pose immediate danger, there is some complacency in building their capacity in the above four aspects. There is also a dilemma on how to spend limited resources on long term interventions while investing in the emergency preparedness. From the food crisis experience, we find that countries that are well-prepared to meet emerging problemshave effectively used existing infrastructure and tweaked them to meet emerging needs. With adequate human capacity, the marginal investment will be much lower than the cost of develop new infrastructure to meet  emergencies. Differential responses to  COVID-19 by various Indian states are a testimony.

Calls for building a robust health system based on experiences from health emergencies are not new.  However, it seems that most of the emerging global crises, such as the COVID-19 health emergency or the food crisis, could be effectively handled and quick bouncing back is possible at the country, regional and global levels, if the above four aspects are given due attention. Finally, every emergency, whether it is a food crisis or disease outbreak, gives an opportunity to strengthen the policy, institutional and human capacities to address them head on and to prevent and mange future crises.

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