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Africa: Anticipatory action for COVID-19: building the systems that protect livelihoods throughout

The impacts of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis on food systems are vast and varied, and as of yet hard to predict. But nowhere are they felt harder than in countries already struggling with food security.

When the socio-economic ramifications of COVID-19 were becoming clear, FAO began monitoring the situation and prioritized scenario building exercises to help make assumptions on the potential impacts of the crises. This exercise pulled together key information from pre-existing food insecurity drivers and vulnerabilities, seasonality of food production, types of livelihoods, the expected evolution of the pandemic and related government policies and containment measures. All these elements come together in different ways depending on the context.

With restrictions being imposed globally, understanding how this would impact upcoming cropping seasons, livestock movements and trade, among others, was and still is critical. Any disruptions to these systems can have grave consequences on both livelihoods and food security. With this foresight in hand, FAO acted early in a range of countries to mitigate the pandemics shock on key agriculture and food security systems.

Even before COVID-19, food prices were rising in Sierra Leone. Now the pandemic has arrived, vegetables and other healthy foods may soon become unaffordable to the most vulnerable. Further south, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, COVID-19 restrictions risk cutting off the country’s capital from the rural regions that provide most of its food. And over in Asia, Bangladesh might see the peak of the virus coincide with the monsoon floods at a critical time for rice production and livestock trade.

How the virus affects food producers depends heavily on the local context. In Afghanistan, for example, herders now have to lead their livestock along different migration routes. In Kenya, farmers are struggling to access seeds and fertilizers because markets have closed. And livestock keepers in Zimbabwe are having a hard time sourcing animal feed to keep their production going.

Because the COVID-19 crisis is complex, those working to curb its effects – and side effects – on the most vulnerable need to put systems in place that can monitor risk factors and analyses how those risks might upset agriculture and food security. Those warning systems need to be grounded in data and built for countries, regions and the world at large, so trends can be spotted when they emerge.

We are yet to see most of the effects that COVID-19 will have on food security. But looking ahead and anticipating these impacts is the key to avoiding that the current health crisis becomes a food crisis for those unprepared to weather a shock.

If a main planting season is upcoming, interventions ahead of time need to be implemented so farmers can access their fields and key inputs to be able to plant. If pandemic related restrictions are already disrupting markets, urgent action is needed to ensure that a forthcoming harvest is not disrupted and farmers can sell their produce. If vulnerable or marginalized groups are likely to be pushed further into hunger, FAO must advocate for the expansion of safety nets to protect them.

This deeper look at the ways that a pandemic can create shocks for the agriculture sector and limits people’s access to food is the first step in supporting vulnerable populations with well-tailored anticipatory actions. These actions are the most effective way to soften the blow that COVID-19 might bring to their lives before the shock reaches a peak. In the case of Sierra Leone, FAO designed an anticipatory action aimed at addressing the expected reduction in crop seeds availability in local markets. The project is helping women farmers grow short cycle crops Part of the produce is purchased and distributed to vulnerable families. This provides cash to producers who are cut off from their markets and it gets food to where it’s most needed without waiting for a food crisis to set in.

In Afghanistan, anticipatory actions are protecting herders’ livestock with cash and herders with animal health kits. COVID-19 restrictions come at critical time in the agriculture calendar as the main staple crops are harvested and herders migrate to traditional grazing areas. That way, FAO is making up for the income that farmers are likely to lose because they can’t bring their goods to market and it’s keeping livestock fit and healthy when they have to travel on new routes.

In Bangladesh, FAO is implementing a mix of all of the above – seeds, cash and livestock support – to help families shield their assets through the monsoon season and keep producing before the fallout of the pandemic impacts rice production – a key staple for many vulnerable families.

In Haiti, for example, effective planning to curb the side effects of COVID-19 needs to take into account the chance of a hurricane making landfall on the island and the pressures that existing political tensions continue to create for people in the country.

Gender inequalities and cultural dynamics are other factors that can influence what action is most appropriate and effective in the local context and every successful intervention will include activities that are culturally aware and diminish existing inequalities.

FAO has emerged as one of the key leaders in early intervention and anticipatory action over the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a new opportunity to apply the experience and expertise of its staff and partners to a new global challenge.

Just like the exact path of a hurricane might be hard to predict, there is much we can’t yet know about the course of the pandemic. But we can monitor changes in COVID-19 cases, food security, trade, weather patterns and many other factors that allow us to envision different scenarios and anticipate bottlenecks before they occur.

Anticipatory action has saved lives and livelihoods in times of conflict and natural disasters and it can do the same to mitigate the shocks of a health crisis if we build the right warning systems to act early. Setting up those systems now for all vulnerable countries will not only curb the knock on effects of COVID-19, but create the infrastructure to act quickly in future pandemics, too.

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