Since its emergence more than two years ago, COVID-19 has reached nearly every corner of the globe. It has infected hundreds of millions of people, and overwhelmed health systems worldwide. But its impact goes beyond its direct health consequences.
Measures to contain its spread – such as travel restrictions and lockdowns – have also had severe consequences for economies and food systems worldwide.
Despite the global impact, the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions vary widely among individuals. In the West, massive stimulus spending has helped ease the economic burden of the lockdowns. In low and middle-income countries, steep drops in employment and income have rivalled or exceeded those in richer nations.
But most people in poor countries have received no financial support and have few or no savings to fall back on.
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Research shows that a disproportionate burden of pandemic-related restrictions has fallen on the world’s poorest. This has raised the question of how to best adapt the mitigation efforts to different types of economies.
My colleagues and I sought to shed light on this issue. Our research examined the impact of pandemic restrictions on smallholder farmers in low and middle-income countries.
In line with existing research on the negative impacts of pandemic restrictions, farmers in low and middle income countries reported that COVID-19 measures negatively affected food purchase, income generation and access to inputs.
The focus on smallholder farmers is pertinent. This group contributes most of the food production in many countries. They are also vulnerable to food insecurity and poverty.
We conducted more than 9,000 interviews with smallholder farmers from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia. The seven countries reflect the diversity of COVID-19 containment measures, and all rely heavily on smallholders for food supply.
The containment measures ranged from no restrictions in Burundi and Tanzania, to closures of public spaces, mandatory quarantines, and travel restrictions in Rwanda and Vietnam. This diversity allowed us to assess how the severity of COVID-19 restrictions affected smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and food security.
Our findings also indicate that the severity of these impacts was directly related to the stringency of the measures.
For countries with the strictest control, up to 80% of smallholder households reported major disruptions, largely in their ability to purchase food due to high prices and closed markets.
Under stringent regulations, most smallholders also reported income reductions averaging 50%. The drop was due to few work opportunities, low prices for agricultural goods, and difficulty in accessing markets. This affected households with off-farm and on-farm incomes alike.
In contrast, negative economic and food security outcomes were less frequent and less severe in locations with relaxed measures. Only around 20% of smallholders reported negative outcomes in Burundi and Tanzania. This supports the growing connection between stringent restrictions and rising poverty and food insecurity in vulnerable areas.
Reports of lost income and difficulty in purchasing food are not unique to smallholder farmers in low and middle-income countries. People around the world have either lost jobs or seen empty grocery store shelves when the pandemic first hit.
What separates the experience of smallholder farmers of poor countries from their counterparts in the West is government aid, and the resulting coping tactics.
The overwhelming majority of farmers we interviewed said they had received no official aid. Unable to turn to their government for support, up to 80% of smallholder farmers in areas under stringent control were forced to reduce their food consumption. Other coping methods included the sale of livestock, unplanned crop sale, drawing down of savings and taking risky loans.
These findings have profound implications because coping methods reduce the buffering capacity of smallholder households and make them vulnerable to future shocks. In many poor smallholder households, coping ways likely forced them into deprivation.
Overall, our results draw further attention to the policy choice between lives and livelihoods. It reveals an almost impossible trade-off between saving lives from the pandemic and losing lives due to deprivation.
Our findings are supported by recent economic analyses showing that the cost-benefit ratio of COVID-19 measures can differ significantly by country. The optimal lockdown is likely to be less stringent in low and middle-income countries seeking to prevent deprivation.
Researchers are not the only ones catching on to this. A recent media analysis of how the pandemic was discussed in five African countries shows that popular media recognised the food insecurity impacts long before many of the scientific studies had been published. Popular narratives framed the situation as a balance between virus containment and food security. This eventually influenced governments to adapt official policy responses and loosen restrictions.
In other words, the world is slowly coming to the realisation that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that stringent measures can successfully prevent excess deaths. But if these measures are introduced in poor countries without the requisite financial assistance, they can undermine the health of the very people they intended to protect.
What works for poor countries
Therefore, the suitability of any crisis mitigation depends on the needs of local populations as well as the capacity of local government to support them.
Crisis mitigation must guard against the exhaustion of buffering capacity in vulnerable households. Potential policy measures to ensure this include tiered mobility restrictions that allow travel for economic reasons, short-term price guarantees to stabilise the food system, and direct aid to rural households.
As governments fight this pandemic and prepare for future crises, they can no longer shy away from thinking through the trade-offs between restrictions and well-being. When COVID-19 struck, we were not prepared to make informed decisions about the trade-offs. The world’s poorest have borne the brunt of the consequences.
Our latest study is part of a growing body of research that provide tools we need to confront these trade-offs. By considering costs and benefits to local populations, policymakers can craft measures that save lives and protect livelihoods of the most vulnerable.