Death by Covid-19 – or hunger?

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Death by Covid-19 – or hunger?

Covid-19 shows us the problems in our world food system. Hazel Healy says that millions of people were suddenly hungry – and she has an idea for a better, more equal way. With extra reporting by Mohamed Camara.

Sierra Leone announced its three-day lockdown without warning. Mummy K is a fish seller from Freetown. Her fish spoiled, the ice melted around it. ‘When I bought the fish, the price was high. So it was a big loss for me,’ she says. Three months later, other fish sellers are selling again, but she is sitting playing games.

‘I don’t know how to start again,’ she says. Her income supported three others, including her four-year-old daughter. They are all now living on garri, a cassava flour, saved for shocks like these. She’s watching her daughter carefully for signs of sickness. ‘Children eat money,’ she says.

Mummy K is one of thousands of women who work in the informal food economy in Sierra Leone. The UN’s World Food Programme says Sierra Leone is one of 27 countries now facing big hunger problems. All over the world, the Covid-19 made hunger worse in many hungry communities. For many, it comes with conflict, climate change, and terrible poverty.

The warnings are very serious. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that the number of people with terrible hunger may rise to 270 million before the end of 2020, an 82-per-cent increase since 2019. Already, The Lancet reports, 10,000 more children died from hunger linked to Covid-19 every month since it began.

How are things so bad after only a few months?



Boys fish in Lake Victoria It was closed to fishers for night-fishing during lockdown in Kenya. Jake Lyell / Alamy

Covid-19 shows the big problems with power and our food system. Millions of people were near to hunger before Cocid-19. This is not a problem of production – harvests are ok, and our food system already produces enough to feed everyone. The problem is that since the economic problems from lockdown, people do not have enough money for food.

The poorest people already spend over 70 per cent of their income on food. So a five-per-cent decline in the world economy immediately affects the poorest people most. In April 2020, the Danish Refugee Council found only 3 per cent of Syrian families in Jordan had one of their family with a job. It was 65 per cent before Covid-19. Almost 80 per cent said that they didn’t have enough food for the next three weeks.

Then there is the reduction in wages for migrant workers. The World Bank says there will be a 20-per-cent reduction in income from abroad, about $100 billion. This is leading to a 300 per cent increase in hunger in Latin America.

The rich world also has problems. Data from the UK government shows that during the first few weeks of lockdown as 7.7 million adults ate smaller meals or missed meals. In the US, a record 54 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Hunger is not only a problem for poor people in cities. It is also affecting smallholder farmers. Lockdown stopped them working. These farmers feed 70 per cent of people in Latin America, South and East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. In Burkina Faso over half the country is already hungry. Danssanin Lanizou told the Associated Press how her family could not go to the market and they could not sell their vegetables. She is now too malnourished to breastfeed her one-month old baby. Her baby’s weight is 50 per cent less after a month.

As less food reaches cities, prices are rising. At the same time, too much food in rural areas means prices are going down for producers. A 50-kilo bag of onions is a dollar less at the market and so Lanizou’s husband has to buy less seed for next year – then the hunger continues.

Lockdown also stopped fishers from going to sea. In Kenya, it stopped night-fishing of Nile Perch and Omena (or Dagaa). They are good cheap small fish for local people. In Tombo, south of Freetown, there were riots with two people dead after only 15 of 400 boats were allowed out to sea.

Supply-chain problem


Amy Darnell rests after loading a truck for food banks, as people queue for potatoes. David Ryder/Reuters

Covid-19 also means big problems with the international supply chains. A quarter of all food is now traded internationally. A supply problem in one place can affect the world.

The supply problems show how countries in the Global South rely on imports to feed their people and market shocks affect them. Nearly half the world’s fish comes from China and with Covid-19 the fish trade stopped. When trade started again, China sent its frozen tilapia fish not to Global South countries but to North American markets, which paid more as restaurants opened.

China’s change in trade meant that frozen fish doubled in price in Nairobi, Kenya, which imported $23 million of Chinese tilapia fish in 2018. At the same time, Kenyan farmers lost the EU export markets for their flowers, fruit, and vegetables as airports closed and there was lockdown in European cities.

In early August, sales started again, but the Financial Times reports that Kenya’s horticulture is still losing about $1 million per day. Smallholder farms are 80 per cent of this. One herb producer had to throw away 60 million tonnes of basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme when his Italian buyer stopped orders. Another farmer, Gerison Ndwiga, says he had to leave more than seven tonnes of beans in the fields to rot. Covid-19 means the possible end of Kenya’s horticulture industry with 350,000 jobs at risk.

Rich countries had difficulties. Food supply was ok in the UK, but Nature Food says this was luck. For 95 per cent of its food, Britain relies on supermarkets, which use supply chains powered by algorithms. The UK can face possible problems because it relies on seasonal migrant labour and Spain and The Netherlands for its fresh vegetables.


Our bad food system in numbers, graphs, and charts.

Nature Food says that as Britain imports half of its food, and there is a possible ‘no deal Brexit’, and there is climate change, we can no longer leave the food supply to the market.’ The UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee now wants a Minister of Food Security for Britain.

Food-processing factories were the perfect place to grow Covid-19 and infections among workers meant farms, packing plants, and abattoirs closed. In April, 11 per cent of Ghana’s Covod-19 infections came from a tuna factory operated by the world’s biggest fish processor, Thai Union. In June, Covid-19 in abattoirs forced the Gütersloh district of north-western Germany into lockdown and showed the dirty, living conditions of migrant workers there.

The meat industry is the worst in the world for Covid-19. In the US, powerful food corporations JBS, Cargill, Tyson, and others got an executive order from Donald Trump to keep their meat-packing plants open. Covid-19 killed at least 70 workers. The industry is in the hands of so few companies that when Covid-19 caused 20 per cent of meat plants to close there were many animals ready for slaughter but with nowhere to go.

The New York Times said some farmers gassed and shot hundreds of thousands of pigs that were ‘too heavy to kill’ and threw away the bodies. Others tried – and failed – to sell pigs on Facebook and Craig’s List. The big poultry company, Allen Harim Foods, gassed two million birds because there were not enough workers. At the same time, hunger in the US was increasing.

The big companies did very well. Because they were allowed to continue their business but small farmers and fishers could not work. As Covid-19 spread, their profits grew. Campaign group GRAIN reports that, in April, Nestlé paid out a record $8 billion to shareholders and executives. This is nearly double the food-emergency fund requested by the UN’s WFP. Bayer, the world’s biggest seed and agrochemical company paid out $2.8 billion to shareholders. Cargill, the world’s biggest agribusiness company, will pay-out a record $640 million.

Industrial farming also helped to create the environments that increase pathogens such as Covid-19. Since 1940, agriculture has been linked with 50 per cent of all diseases that jump from animals to humans – as agriculture eats into forests, grasslands, and the last wild corners of the world. Many new diseases come from wildlife. Intensely reared livestock is the cause of some of the most serious recent diseases – nipah, MERS, Avian Flu, and Swine Flu. Covid-19 shows industrial farming to be a more and more unsafe way to get our food. Its use of fossil fuels increases greenhouse gas emissions

New food ways


A volunteer works on a field in Spain in April 2020, picking surplus fruits for soup kitchens during a national lockdown. Josep Lago/AFP/Getty

Covid-19 also shows that big changes can bring new possibilities.

Governments showed they could move quickly to protect the most vulnerable people. By June 2020, 195 countries planned or brought more social protection, mostly through cash transfers. In the Indian state of Kerala, free community kitchens run by women distributed food. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the city bought food from local markets for people with no jobs.

In Wuhan, China, they used buses to deliver food. Quito, Ecuador, also used buses. The city’s urban gardens delivered 11 tonnes of vegetables to vulnerable neighbourhoods every week. Toronto turned its libraries into food hubs and in New York thousands of out-of-work taxi drivers delivered food parcels.

People everywhere helped. They gave money to the poor in India and Pakistan. In London, ‘Co-operation Kentish Town’ was Camden’s first food distribution network and delivered 22,000 food parcels. In Chile, bakers Elefante Blanco gave bread to 300 families. In Brighton in the UK, the Bevy Community Pub delivered 5,000 meals three times a week.

Farmers helped with the good use of social media. Kannaiyan Subramaniam from Tamil Nadu, India, used Twitter to move nearly 100 tonnes of cabbage; producers and consumers met on WhatsApp. Sudha Narayanan is from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research. Sudha says that traditional food sellers – family-run shops and pushcarts that still supply 90 per cent of the Indian market – did better than modern retailers. Shopping malls stayed shut but car mechanics sold fruit and vegetables.

Local food chains did well. In the Philippines, the government collected surplus vegetables and took them to urban areas. This made money for producers. In France, Poland, the US, and China they used online platforms to connect farmers and citizens. In Ghana fishers delivered fresh seafood to households.

New ideas


Al-Khidmat Foundation arranges food for distribution during a lockdown in Peshawar, Pakistan.Hussain Ali/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty

Covid-19 has opened up new ideas. In the rich world, more people want governments not to leave decisions on food and prices to the big food companies. We know that obesity gives you a 50 per cent greater chance of falling seriously ill with Covid-19. In the UK, the government has an obesity plan, with restrictions on advertising junk-food and unhealthy foods in supermarkets.

In Kenya, they destroyed tonnes of French beans when there was not enough food and they are thinking about how and what the country produces. Jane Ambuko is Head of Horticulture at the University of Nairobi. She says ‘Opportunities for using local and regional markets are now clearer after years of relying on exports.’ Because there are fewer cheap Chinese fish imports there is talk of bringing back the domestic fishing industry.

People are calling for farming that works with nature, and using plants and animals to help the land, fertilize crops, and fight pests. This means less need for imported fertilizers, and makes local food chains stronger.

The World Food Programme is calling for $4.9 billion over the next six months to stop the worst situation. But it’s at a time when rich nations have to think about their own economic problems.

The responses to Covid-19 could start a new food system, which feeds the poor and the hungry around the world. We should have a system that has a diverse, nutritious food supply and pays its workers and producers enough money.

The possibility of so much hunger and not enough food by the end of 2020 should tell us that food justice cannot wait.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)