'I fear going to bed hungry' - Covid-19 lockdown crunch hits millions

17 July 2020 - 14:25
By Sipokazi Fokazi
A new UN report has warned that Covid-19 lockdowns across the world could result in hunger for millions of people, especially in Africa and Asia.
Image: Esa Alexander A new UN report has warned that Covid-19 lockdowns across the world could result in hunger for millions of people, especially in Africa and Asia.

After not being paid for two months following the lockdown when his company was forced to temporarily stop operating, Mzukisi Tinto thought he had it hard.

However, the father of two, who is the breadwinner for his family of five, is now facing what he fears the most: losing his job. This may make his family vulnerable to hunger.

The East London engineering company where he is employed recently announced it may  soon retrench staff following huge financial losses during the lockdown. He said his company had not received UIF-TERS benefits. The economy was partially reopened under level three restrictions, but business is tough to come by.

“This week we started doing short-time work. Our managers said we must expect retrenchments at the end of the month if the short-time alternative doesn’t work. We are all worried about not having an income. It’s difficult to have hope in this climate. I fear going to bed hungry and not being able to provide for my family, particularly my children,” Tinto said this week.

The 33-year-old is one of millions of South Africans facing hunger following the protracted lockdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a new United Nations (UN) report published this week, the world body has warned that billions of people around the world could go hungry and face chronic malnutrition as they can’t afford nutritious meals.

The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimates that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 – up by 10 million from 2018. This number is expected to rise to 60 million in five years, but the authors of the report have warned that Covid-19 could tip this over by additional 130-million people by the end of 2020 - and the majority will be in Africa and Asia.

“Flare-ups of acute hunger in the pandemic context may see this number escalate further at times,” warns the report.

“Five years after the world committed to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, we are still off track to achieve this objective by 2030.”

The report, which is jointly produced by the UN, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Fund for Agriculture, is the most authoritative global study tracking progress towards ending hunger and malnutrition.

While progress has stalled, the report warns that the Covid-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems, including production, distribution and consumption.

Authors warn that overcoming hunger is not just about food in the stomachs to survive, but that the quality of food is crucial. “What people eat, especially what children eat, must also be nutritious. A key obstacle is the high cost of nutritious foods and the low affordability of healthy diets for vast numbers of families."

The report came in the same week as the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), which found that about three million South Africans have lost their jobs during the lockdown. This represents about an 18% decline in employment from 17 million people working in February to 14 million in April 2020.

The survey, which studied about 7,000 South Africans, is considered the most nationally representative survey that currently exists. It revealed that a 40% decline in active employment was split equally between those who were laid off and those who were either furloughed or on paid leave.

“Approximately 30% of those who were retrenched between February and April report no household level grant protection at all,” states the report.

Tinto, who looks after his elderly mother, his wife Lizalise and two children, said having “no back up is the scariest part”.

“Many companies here in East London have either retrenched workers or closed down completely. I fear that if I lose this job I may not have an alternative and my children may go hungry.

“My children have started asking why I am not at work this week, but I’m too scared to tell them what is happening. I don’t want to give them more anxiety. I worry they will soon have to face the reality of the situation as we are already buying less food. We only buy the basics, and on some days we don’t eat meat so  it lasts longer.”

The UN report urges a transformation of food systems to reduce the cost of nutritious foods and increase the affordability of healthy diets.

The study calls on governments to “mainstream nutrition in their approaches to agriculture, and work to cut cost-escalating factors in the production, storage, transport, distribution and marketing of food – including by reducing inefficiencies and food loss and waste”.

The authors  called for the support of local small-scale producers to grow and sell more nutritious foods, and “prioritise children’s nutrition as the category in greatest need".