COVID-19 Impact on Food and Nutrition Security in Asia

6 min read

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the food nutrition security situation in Asia?

The global pandemic of COVID-19 is affecting people all over the world. Beyond its impact on the health sector, the disease has had major implications on social, economic and psychological aspects of life. It has disrupted education, work, and food systems and shattered the livelihoods for millions of people globally.

During the lockdowns many farmers were unable to produce food, harvest their fields or sell their produce. Ports were closed, ships were left stranded at sea. Farmers and fishermen sometimes were left with no other option than to dump perishable produce because of these major disruptions in the supply chains. Border closures impacted the import and export of food items, resulting in increased food insecurity within countries and communities. For example, Vietnam was driven to temporarily halt its rice export. This in turn was a big disadvantage for countries that import a lot of their rice from Vietnam, such as Timor Leste.

What support is needed to ensure food and nutrition security amongst vulnerable populations in Asia?

Invest in farmers and agricultural workers

Food distribution and functional markets are essential. It is critical to support farmers and smallholders in the food sector so that they can continue to produce healthy and nutritious foods. With the global lockdowns limiting mobility, digitalising key components of the supply chain has been an important trend. To adapt quickly to the new normal, producers, distributors and sellers alike are finding themselves in need of extra support to “get online” and take advantage of these budding tools and platforms. Some vegetable growers in Malaysia and  fishermen in Indonesia for example have managed to sell some of their yields via e-commerce channels since the crisis began. Farming cooperative Rumah Sayur Group provided assistance to farmers to sell their fresh produce through an online platform directly to supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and cafés in the Greater Jakarta area. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has opened up its Taobao Live platform to farmers for free along with its Foodie Livestream channel to connect farmers across China with its 41 million followers. Another e-commerce conglomerate, Lazada, has also joined the movement, supporting Malaysian SMEs like MyFishman, a fresh seafood subscription and delivery service to expand their market.

Further upstream, Tun Yat, a Myanmar based agribusiness technology platform, is supporting farmers to continue much needed corn and rice harvesting and tractor tilling essential services by offering extended credit periods for farmers facing debt issues. They are working to connect farmers with warehouses that can buy crops for farmers who are in desperate need of cash flow due to covid-19 related border closures which have hugely impacted  trade and buying patterns.

As market-driven solutions lead the way to recovery, in the long run, governments need to develop  appropriate policy measures to ensure the continuity of food systems to serve the people, especially poor and vulnerable populations.

Invest in Vulnerable Communities

People who could not work or lost their jobs due to the pandemic have not been able to provide enough food, let alone nutritious foods, for their families. In a region where pre-crisis malnutrition levels measured amongst children was already at 22.7%, this has worsened the situation even further.

Social investors are stepping in to bridge the gap to improve the situation of these increasingly vulnerable populations. One such actor is Sight and Life, a nutrition think tank, informs, supports, designs, and incubates evidence-based malnutrition solutions. In India, they enable NGOs such as The Akshaya Patra Foundation, The Hungry Foal, The Breakfast Revolution to help provide nutritious food supplies to vulnerable sections of society across India. These sections comprise of the marginalized and low-income groups – children under 5 years, pregnant and lactating mothers, daily wage earners, migrant laborers, the most needy and the elderly. Interventions include the distribution of ration kits, to daily wage/destitute families, to migrant workers and distribution of grocery kits which include fortified foods with essential vitamins and minerals. To date, The Breakfast Revolution has distributed 80,000 protein rich meals to slums and hospitals and aims to distribute 2 million meals altogether.

Also in India, East-West Seed India, in partnership with Rotary Club of Aurangabad, distributed 40 tons of food kits containing wheat flour, rice, Toor dal, sugar, oil, peanuts, salt and soaps.

Another great initiative is the Project Ugnayan initiative in the Philippines. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, 20 business groups have raised funds to help Metro Manila’s urban poor through the distribution of grocery vouchers. The business groups, which include ABS-CBN, Ayala Group, PLDT and Jollibee, cooperated with the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF) to raise funds in support of its ongoing initiatives to help poor families that suffered because of the lockdown because of the COVID-19 situation in the Philippines and was able to provide grocery vouchers to more than 1.5 million families across Greater Manila.

Invest in the Next Generation

For many children in Asia, attending school is not just an opportunity to learn, they are also dependent on schools feeding programmes for their dietary requirements. With schools closed, children no longer have access to these often essential sources of energy and nutritious foods.

Organisations providing school feeding, together with the relevant authorities involved have been looking at ways to distribute the school meals to the students in alternative ways. To execute this, extra funding and logistical support for meal distribution are required. When schools do open again, support is needed to make sure that schools have access to clean water and soap as well as advice on how best to implement the social distancing measures in schools that are often already overpopulated.

One organisation that has developed strong solutions in this area is the Global Fund for Children (GFC). Through its emergency response fund, it has been able to support numerous organisations, including GRACE Association. GRACE Association works in Northern Pakistan, where there has been widespread shortage of hand sanitisers and face masks, alongside massive food insecurity as the country went into shutdown. With support from GFC, GRACE Association is looking to distribute sanitizer and face masks to children and their caregivers as well as prepared food for families in vulnerable positions.

Conclusion

The pandemic is far from over but slowly countries are opening up and we are learning about the enormous economic consequences of this global crisis. We also learn more about the major disturbances to global food systems and the devastating effect on the food and security situation of vulnerable populations such as people working in agriculture, migrant workers and people living in slums or refugee camps.

In addition to investing in health and urgent relief efforts, funders must consider long-term goals – building the resilience of the supply chain, providing grants for small business owners and smallholder farmers to jumpstart their operations in the uptick, and provide necessary supplements and affordable foods to the most vulnerable communities to arrest increasing malnutrition in the wake of COVID-19. Learn more about how you can harness these opportunities and join the conversation to identify partners and opportunities for collaboration.


About Author
Annoek van den Wijngaart
Annoek van den Wijngaart Nutrition Consultant HFA

Annoek van den Wijngaart is Public Health and Nutrition expert. She has worked on nutrition specific and nutrition sensitive interventions, particularly also food fortification, behaviour change communication and nutrition sensitive agriculture in Asia Pacific during the last 20 years.

Annoek is currently self-employed as an International Public Health and Nutrition consultant, based in Singapore.

Annoek holds a master’s degree in Nutrition from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a Master of Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.