22 April 2020

COVID-19 and food: the economic and food crisis hits the more vulnerable - some insights

At global level (2.6 million COVID-19 cases, 180,000 dead): the crisis unfolds despite sufficient food availability

Everyone agrees to say that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a negative impact on our food systems by creating a situation of crisis that will hit hard the poor:

  1. those who rely on casual daily labour to be able to feed themselves and their family and who are at risk to be prevented from working in case of a lockdown;

  2. those living in poor countries who lack required resources to assist their vulnerable population groups.

The effect of the pandemic will be all the stronger as speculative price increases can be observed in some places (let’s remind here that for the poorer population groups, food can represent more than 60% in their budget).

Moreover, it is quite likely that food supply chains will be disturbed by movement restrictions and a shortage of labourers at various stages of the value chain (harvest, processing, retail, in particular).

Social programmes (school lunches, public food assistance) as well as investment projects are equally prone to disruption, with immediate consequences on employment and medium-term impact on the food and agriculture sectors because of the non-achievement of their planned results (infrastructure, goods and services).

However, for the time being, there should not be any shortage of food, as the world wheat harvest is expected to be quite abundant and stocks are high in China and India. There are also excellent prospects for the next rice harvest [read].

In Europe (1.2 million cases, 109,000 dead): no food shortage but a threat on animal production

According to Sebastian Lakner, a German researcher, the COVID crisis will have no impact on the next production from field crops (cereals and oil crops) in Europe, as these crops are already in place. However, in the mid-term, there could be a shortage of fertiliser as plants have been on a halt in China.

The fruit and vegetable harvest is likely to be constrained because of movement limitations affecting seasonal workers. Most concerned countries are Italy, Spain, Romania, France and Greece.

For animal production, the key issue is the supply of feed because of trade restrictions, particularly in the case of the essential soya from South America.

However, it is important to remember that Europe is roughly self-sufficient in food, but for vegetable oil (mainly palm oil) [read].

This point of view is corroborated by a note of the European Parliament [read]

In the UK (130,000 cases, 17,000 dead): strong increase of the number of food-insecure people

With lockdown, there are clear indications that millions of Britons are in a difficult food situation. According to the Food Foundation, after three weeks of lockdown, 1.5 million people said that they had not eaten for more than a day, and 3 million lived in a household in which some members had been forced to skip meals. Food assistance organisations declared they had to cope with a huge flow of people (in some places three times more than last year) and requested financial support from the government [read]. They also launched virtual food drives on the Internet [read].

Let’s remind our readers that, contrarily to the European Union, the UK imports a large part of its food and that these imports could be affected by trade restrictions.

In the US (820,000 cases, 45,000 dead): food panic, layoffs and wastage

According to an article in the New York Times, after weeks of panic purchases that generated temporary food shortages in supermarkets of some US cities, some big farms have had to dump their production: an estimated 13 million litres of milk are thrown away every day in the country, representing 5% of national output, and large quantities of eggs are being smashed and vegetables thrown away, while food banks are flooded with donations of goods they are not able to store properly. It seems that the surplus of vegetables may be due to the fact that US citizens consume much less vegetables when they are at home than when they eat at restaurants [read].

The situation is particularly absurd at a time when, because of a historic rise of unemployment (plus 2.2 million people during the week of March 16), millions of US citizens find themselves without the resources required to purchase their food (economists at the Federal Reserve believe that 47 million people could lose their job owing to the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic [read]).

In India (20,000 cases, 650 dead): spectacular migrations

The announcement of the lockdown measures made just a few hours before their implementation created panic in the country’s megacities. On the one hand, a great many people rushed to buy food in order to build up their family provisions, crowding shops and generating circumstances favourable to virus transmission. On the other hand, migrant labourers present in big cities (of which 100 million are said to live in squalid conditions) sought to return to their village at any cost, depriving urban centres from a large share of their workers who are “constructing houses, cooking food, serving in eateries, delivering takeaways, cutting hair in salons, making automobiles, plumbing toilets and delivering newspapers, among other things … in a staggering exodus was reminiscent of the flight of refugees during the bloody partition in 1947” [read].

In Africa (26,000 cases, 1,200 dead): first signs of a food crisis; a questioned development strategy

The shock created by COVID-19 is now also hitting Africa. It causes forced unemployment and increases precariousness of all those - a considerable part of the population - surviving from one day to the next and working in the informal sector.

The closing of borders and more or less strict movement restrictions decided by governments to prevent virus propagation have started to hamper economic activities and the work undertaken by NGOS and UN agencies responsible for deploying food assistance to the more vulnerable population groups [read in French]. The impact of the pandemic on development is due to the halting of construction sites, restricting of vehicle movements, suspension of agricultural programmes as the rains are close, and this is bound to have consequences for the next cropping season.

According to the World Bank, South Africa, Angola and Nigeria will be the countries most hit by recession, GDP contraction being estimated between 6 and 7% in 2020. There is likely to be a reduction of agricultural production (between 2.6 and 7%, believes the World Bank) and the African Union reckons that “almost 20 million jobs, both in the formal and informal sectors, could be destroyed in the continent, if these circumstances continue” [read in French]. These projections revive the debate around the dilemma on whether to stop or not economic activities: for some, the fear is that suspending them will create more victims (from hunger, social unrest, criminality, etc.) than COVID-19.

There are some signs of increase in food prices. In Rwanda, a strong price rise is explained by panic buys, speculation by some traders and supply constraints linked to movement restrictions. These increases have made the government fix the price of 17 staple products, including rice, sugar and vegetable oil.

In Kenya where shortages occurred in supermarkets on some goods, the government appealed traders not to use the current situation to make “abnormal profits” [read]. In Ghana, which imports agricultural commodities for more than $100 million from China, the US and Europe, it is expected that there will be a lack of labourers for harvests and for effective operations of food chains [read]. Similar conditions exist elsewhere in Africa [see more details].

This situation makes African leaders reflect on the development strategy adopted in the region. According to Ibrahim Mayaki, the Chief Executive Officer of NEPAD, the African Union Development Agency, “Most countries have experienced a good economic growth over the last years, but this growth was not inclusive: it created neither jobs nor did it contribute to industrialisation or diversification… [This growth] has become some kind of a bubble that is now deflating alone to reveal the flaws in our state, particularly in terms of health.” The virus acts as a revealer of the “cracks and weaknesses” of the state and this calls for an “in-depth reflection on governance, public interest and our idea of the state” at the end of this crisis [read in French]. For Mayaki, “You cannot lock down poverty. So our way of locking down will have to allow the more vulnerable groups in our cities to have access to basic goods” [read in French].

Early this January, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called for funds for an amount of $30 billion (around 28 billion euros) to cover the needs in 2020 of the approximately 110 million people targeted by humanitarian relief operations in 23 countries, of which 14 in Africa, a figure unmatched for the last ten years [read in French].

During a virtual meeting held recently, the European Commissioner for Agriculture declared that the EU’s programme in support of Africa should have a budget of more than $20 billion. The World Bank intends to reallocate funds available for Africa amounting to $3.2 billion, while the African Development Bank envisages a technical and financial assistance programme [read]. The World Food Programme stated that it was ready to face the challenge of emergency and logistical support. It published a guide for governments on how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on food for schoolchildren. Forecasts project a major increase in the food aid needs. In East Africa, for example, it is expected that the number of assisted people will double (a total or 34 to 43 million people, compared to 20 million currently), not only because of COVID-19, but also due to the desert locust [read]


To know more :

  1. Lawrence, F. UK hunger crisis: 1.5m people go whole day without food. The Guardian, 2020.

  2. J. Tilouine, Coronavirus : « En Afrique, on ne réfléchira pas le développement de la même façon après la crise », Le Monde 2020 (in French).

  3. Caramel, L. En Afrique, les opérations humanitaires fragilisées par les mesures de confinement, Le Monde 2020 (in French).

  4. Coronavirus Resource Center, World COVID-19 map, Johns Hopkins University, 2020.

  5. Statistics: Worldometer (22 April 2020).

  6. Swinnen, J., Will COVID-19 cause another food crisis? An early review. IFPRI, 2020.

  7. European Parliament, Protecting the EU agri-food supply chain in the face of COVID-19, 2020.

  8. Yaffe-Bellany, D. et M. Corkery, Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables : Food Waste of the Pandemic, New York Times, 2020.

Selection of past articles on related to the topic:

  1. The selfish, the blind and the invisible: what COVID-19 tells us about our societies, 2020.

  2. COVID-19 and food  - The pandemic is likely to cause a major food crisis, 2020.

  3. Opinion : Back to reality - Reflections around the COVID-19 crisis, 2020.


Last update:    April 2020

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