The effect of COVID-19 in the vulnerable communities across West Africa 

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In this interview, we speak with Coumba Sow, FAO Resilience Coordinator for West Africa, about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it could mean for millions of people already grappling with hunger and conflict in West Africa.

West Africa and the Sahel region, in particular, have long been prone to droughts and food shortages, and over the past decade, rising insecurity. How is the situation now?

This is a complex region – hit by chronic hunger, insecurity, climate change, the threats of a Desert Locust outbreak, and now the pandemic. Year after year, five out of the ten countries at the bottom of the UN Development Index are in West Africa.

Right now, we are particularly concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Central Sahel – comprised of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Some four million people here are already facing extreme hunger and this could rise to 5.5 million people by August. Just to put it in perspective – by August, in Burkina Faso, over two million people could be facing extreme hunger, and at the worst time – as the lean season sets in and food becomes scarcer. This number is three times higher than last year during the same period.

Across West Africa, as of April, over 11 million people need immediate food assistance – mostly due to conflict. And this number will continue rising, potentially reaching 17 million during the lean season (June- August) if we don’t respond fast.

Many people are not only hungry. They are also uprooted and have lost what they had. The ones I spoke to had the same story – of villages attacked; of family members killed or displaced; of homes or fields destroyed; of animals abandoned or killed.

As of now, some 1.2 million people have been displaced in Central Sahel. If the conflict persists, more people will suffer the same fate. 

According to the 2020 Global Food Crisis report, increasing violence, displacements and disrupted agriculture and trade in tandem with the adverse climate in West Africa and Sahel countries will worsen acute food insecurity conditions in many areas this year.

COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for vulnerable communities across West Africa.

Who is most at risk from COVID-19?

First of all: children. Malnutrition rates in the Sahel are one of the highest in the world. Some 2.5 million children – more than a quarter in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – suffer from severe and acute malnutrition. 

As mothers and children are the hardest hit, in general, they will also suffer the most during the pandemic.

Those who are already hungry, or already hungry and displaced, will be at extreme risk.

The key issue to highlight is that the pandemic is expanding during crucial months for this region – when people need to plant, move with their animals. Farmers need to be able to sell their current produces but also access fields and markets to prepare for the main 2020/2021 agricultural season. Pastoralists or nomadic herders need to move with their animals. Governments and humanitarian actors need to assist people requiring urgent food, nutritional and emergency support during the lean season.

For centuries, nomadic herders across the Sahel have moved hundreds of miles every year to find pasture for their herds. This is something they do each year, especially during April-May as pastures become drier.

Many Mauritanian herders, for example, head to Mali and Senegal in search of pasture.

But, as borders close, nomadic herders are no longer able to move in search of fodder and water or to trade – animals can be traded for other foods or essential items.

This can lead to herders losing their income as they can’t sell their animals or buy what they need for them as well as potentially losing animals as some of them might not survive or might fall ill. When animals suffer, people suffer. When animals die or stop being a source of milk or meat, people go hungry. When animals are lost, so are people’s livelihoods.

Farmers will also be affected by COVID-19 due to a lower supply of fertilizers and seeds, the closure of stores and markets, and reduced assistance.

The pandemic – if it spreads further – will translate into increasing threats: from more displacements to less and less access to basic social services, higher food prices, less food. 

Are COVID-19’s impacts on people’s food security already being felt in West Africa?

Governments have taken measures such as physical distancing and closure of markets. These will result in market disruptions, whether for traders or buyers.

COVID-19’s impacts are already seen in the pastoral areas. As most borders are closed, movements of herders and animals have been restricted. 

Although the pandemic’s impact on primary products’ prices are not yet discernible, the fact that many people are buying main commodities in bulk could lead to a temporary increase in costs and shortages, which will be difficult to manage as/if production drops. Transport is also already affected, which will impact on food and products’ supply.

How is FAO responding?

As most of West Africa is already affected by other complex crises, our first priority is to safeguard and maintain our current emergency response, especially activities supporting the upcoming agricultural campaign, which will help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on food security.

Doing so will be particularly challenging given the operational difficulties due to the movement restrictions introduced by most countries. However, working closely with governments, the UN family, and partners, we are recalibrating and finding ways to deliver.

Our response across the region is only funded at 20 per cent, however. We urge donors and partners to ensure that the ongoing emergencies, on top of COVID-19, are not forgotten.

In response to COVID-19, FAO has been collecting information and carrying out analysis, at regional and country level, on the pandemic’s likely consequences on agriculture and food security, which will feed into a global data facility. This is informing the development of national and regional strategies as well as country-specific COVID-19 preparedness and response plans. Several actions in these plans are already being implemented.

In Burkina Faso, FAO is launching a program, thanks to supporting from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to provide immediate assistance to vulnerable households living in quarantine in urban and peri-urban areas so they can access healthy and nutritious food.

In Senegal, FAO is supporting the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic through awareness-raising campaigns, particularly for actors along the food chain, to avoid a further spread of the pandemic. We will support small producers affected by trade disruptions, mostly women, to sell their produce, gain sufficient money and prepare for planting. And we will distribute cash and vouchers to pastoralists so they can feed their animals, and to reduce food waste and loss.

In the short-term, the priorities are: support vulnerable households affected by COVID-19 to access adequate food; ensure pastoralists have feed and water during the current dry season, and farmers have seeds to start planting; ensure social protection during the lean season, and maintain the markets and value chains functional so that people can buy the food they need, and at adequate prices.

FAO experts are also monitoring the Desert Locust situation, as there is some possibility of the pest’s incursion into West Africa towards mid-year.

What should governments do?

FAO encourages countries to keep abreast and adapt their response plans to the consequences of the pandemic – as these become better known. What is crucial is to anticipate COVID-19’s impacts on agriculture, food security and the lives of vulnerable women and children. Ensuring that food systems and food supply chains are maintained is one of the most important action to take at national and regional levels.

On 16 April, all 55 member states of the African Union (AU) committed during a meeting by AU-FAO to supporting access to food and nutrition for Africa’s most vulnerable; providing social safety nets; minimizing disruptions to the safe movement and transport of essential people, and to the transport and marketing of goods and services; and keeping borders open for the food and agriculture trade. This is a first, crucial step, and FAO is proud to have been part of this processes.

What are the biggest challenges for FAO’s work if the pandemic worsens?

If the pandemic worsens, as many as 50 million more people could face a food crisis in the region.

This is why we are scaling up our support through local partners and actors and finding innovative ways, such as online training and remote support, to increase their capacity. We learnt during the Ebola crisis that several activities can be carried out by integrating them into our regular work, whilst respecting additional measures such as health protocols. FAO has activated business continuity plans across all the region with the aim of ensuring the safety of its staff, partners and beneficiaries while maintaining activities running. 

Anything else you would like to add?

These are challenging times, but let’s not forget that people in West Africa have proven to be resilient in the face of crises. In fact, FAO’s and many other agencies’ global approach to COVID-19 is informed by lessons learned from the West Africa Ebola crisis.

We also learnt from Ebola that whilst COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis, we must do everything possible to not turn this into a food crisis, and for many communities in West Africa a larger food crisis.

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