As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the Horn of Africa, its impacts are being felt unevenly across geographies, time, and different groups of people. These impacts go beyond the immediate risk of infection, compounding existing vulnerabilities, crises and risks to create an economic crisis that will take longer to recover from than the illness itself. A snapshot of the food security situation in the Horn of Africa (HoA) underscores these dynamics: COVID-19 complicates a context characterised by chronic food insecurity, protracted conflict and displacement, and environmental factors such as flooding and desert locust swarms. The predictions are dire: FEWSNET predicts that in the East African region (within which they include Yemen), ‘the peak number of people facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes in 2020 will be 25-30 percent higher than the peak population estimate prior to the onset of COVID-19.’ This article sheds light on these dynamics, mapping the layers of the food security challenge the HoA faces as a result of COVID-19 and other factors. We also highlight key points of resilience, expertise and lessons to be learned from within the region that warrant further support and research.
Prior to the pandemic, rates of food insecurity in the HoA were already high in many places, with approximately 20 million people severely food insecure. This was despite the relatively favourable rains in the first half of 2020, and resulted from a variety of factors including chronic poverty, localised flooding, and the effects of the 2019 locust infestation. The arrival of COVID-19 in the HoA has put more people at risk not only because of the effects of the illness, but also due to restrictions on movement, economic slowdowns, and commitments of healthy people to care for others who are affected by the illness. In addition, many vulnerable households who might usually be able to rely on remittances from relatives living abroad are finding that these transfers are dwindling as the senders cope with the health-related and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Lockdowns and restrictions on movement
Alarmingly, a significant number of people face food insecurity as a result of government lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on movement. Put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, these measures also prevent many people from accessing incomes, and are particularly disruptive for those living in informal urban settlements, those reliant on the informal sector for their livelihoods, displaced populations and migrant workers. Concerns have been raised, for example, about refugees in Kenyan camps running out of food, and key services from UNHCR have been suspended. Humanitarian organisations are struggling to deliver food, with the WFP reporting disruptions to distribution due to lockdown measures and curfews, delays for truck drivers at borders, and quarantine restrictions for pilots. Lessons learned and expertise about delivering aid remotely, for example during conflicts in Somalia and Sudan where mobile cash transfers have been used, are now of increased importance, as is the need for conflict-sensitive programming.
Exclusionary economic responses
Government economic packages announced in the HoA during the pandemic, such as bailouts and temporary tax relief, have tended to exclude the millions in the region reliant on daily wage labour. Many now face the prospect of insufficient money for food, or of navigating choices around whether to spend money on food or medical care in the case of COVID-19 infection. Vulnerable groups from across the region have little choice but to defy lockdowns and continue to work, echoing these concerns from Uganda: ‘Before the sickness comes to kill us we will die from hunger.’
Changes to supply and demand, and cross-border trade
Early analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on Africa’s food systems suggests that demand has slowed in the region, threatening livelihoods of producers; but that the impacts on food systems have, to date, tended towards localised disruptions and bottlenecks. Restrictions on trade with the Middle East and Asia, coupled with reduced international demand for some of the HoA’s key exports (such as coffee, tea and flowers), and travel restrictions slowing the transportation of goods within and out of the region, may have significant impacts on food security. Women and youth are likely to be hit particularly hard. Mercy Corps reports that in South Sudan (where the predictions of food insecurity are the most severe, according to FEWSNET), which is reliant on cross-border trade with Uganda and Sudan, traders are seeing significant restrictions on trade at borders and reductions in supply of staple food items. However, in some places examples of traders adapting are also emerging: in Ethiopia and Somalia, after initial suspensions, traders are using their social networks to find new routes and negotiate documentation to access certain border crossings.
After a devastating invasion of desert locust in 2019, the HoA is facing an even worse swarm this year starting from June until the harvests in the last quarter of the year. The Food and Agricultural Organisation has targeted 1.7 million hectares for control measures, yet COVID-19 is hampering locust control measures. Current analysis shows that ‘more than 11 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, who are already facing high acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3+), are located in areas currently affected by the desert locust infestations’ and that ‘A further 2.76 million people in South Sudan and 120,000 people in Uganda facing high levels of acute food insecurity are also under threat’.
These overlapping crises of COVID-19 and locust swarms may trigger localised conflict over resources and exacerbate food insecurity. A Turkana pastoralist and peacebuilder reports from Kenya: ‘There will be an increase in resource-based conflict… people will be moving towards areas where there will be grass. We need to prepare for conflict.’ Meanwhile, pastoralists are doing what they can to mobilise collective responses that draw on their expertise of living in contexts of variability and uncertainty.
In Somalia, where COVID-19, locusts, insecurity and floods overlap, the FAO forecasts ‘gu season cereals (i.e. the heavier rain season, March to June) coming in at 15-25 per cent under average, and report a ‘sharply deteriorating food security situation’ with ‘about 3.5 million people projected to be severely food insecure between July and September 2020.’
Conclusion – food security challenges, moving forward
The amplification of food insecurity in the Horn of Africa by COVID-19 with other hazards point to a very worrying situation. International and national actors have been quick to issue appeals and mount responses. The World Food Programme has issued a call for food assistance for between 34-43 million people (nearly double the pre-Covid levels). The African Development Bank has launched a Feed Africa Response to COVID-19, and governments of the region as well as international and local NGOs have issued appeals for support to food insecure populations. These appeals come at a time when globally the worst recession since World War II is being predicted, likely resulting in less funding for international development. Despite the challenges of responding to this emerging crisis, the urgency of a quick and robust response cannot be underestimated.