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The Imminent Threat of Hunger Amid a More Distant Fear of COVID-19

Kennedy Odede, Founder of Shining Hope for Communities, which has been distributing soaps, tissues and food for the people living in informal settlements in Kenya. Photo Credit: Kennedy Odede / Twitter
April 29, 2020

“Right now, in this community, they don’t care about corona killing them — they care about dying from hunger.”

This harrowing statement by Kennedy Odede, Founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), voices the fears of the residents in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, housing a quarter of a million people. It is a sentiment that is felt by the hundreds of millions living in poverty around the world for whom hunger is a much more imminent threat than COVID-19.

Food insecurity is not a novel phenomenon. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 135 million people faced acute food insecurity due to extreme weather, conflict, economic shocks and displacement; now, the World Food Programme estimates that an additional 130 million people will be at risk of starvation globally.

The containment efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have become the most recent driver of food insecurity. Millions of daily wage earners have lost their income due to lockdown measures — with no work, they are left without income for food. Seventy percent of the workforce in developing countries comprises informal workers. The volume of people affected is such that the World Bank predicts that poverty rates will go up for the first time since 1998.

In India, a country with 1.3 billion people and an estimated 100 million internal migrants, the lockdown poses an additional dimension to the food insecurity and poverty borne by informal workers – social isolation. “My wife calls up and urges me to get home anyhow,” said Kumar, a migrant day labourer in Delhi. “She says that even if we are hungry, we will be hungry together.” Being estranged from one’s family in a time of crisis — amid a pandemic, when thousands have died without the support of any family member — compounds any material deprivations, adding the psychosocial duress of disconnection.

Millions are trapped in a perverse catch-22, wherein the measures put in place to protect them and contain the virus have set the stage for sinking further into multidimensional poverty.

Fortunately, governments have recognized the need to supplement stringent lockdowns with social relief packages. As of April 23, 2020, 30 countries in Africa, and 151 countries globally have introduced social assistance programs in response to COVID-19, including Kenya and India. One of the most widely-used interventions globally is cash transfers — a method that avoids disorderly food distribution, such as that witnessed at a recent stampede in Kibera where food was being allocated. Kenya has a history of cash transfer programs to support vulnerable members. In 2017, it became the base for the world’s largest and most long-term experiment on universal basic income (UBI). In response to this crisis, Kenya was able to expand existing cash transform programs and allot an additional $100 million to support vulnerable groups.

Yet, most social assistance measures are not foolproof — particularly when it comes to including people who are not part of existing social safety nets. This gap is where the local reach and knowledge of grassroots NGOs is invaluable. SHOFCO has identified 3,000 vulnerable families within its network and is supporting them with direct cash transfers for three months. It has launched a door-to-door campaign across 11 settlements that has reached 171,230 people so far and is preparing emergency food support for vulnerable slum residents. Their multi-pronged approach also involves building hand-washing stations, raising awareness, combating misinformation, and mobilizing members of their women’s empowerment program to produce critical materials. In India, the grassroots NGO Aid India has visited 874 villages and slums to identify families most in need — it has provided essential food supplies to 8,375 families and supplied masks to sanitation workers. 

Grassroots organizations such as SHOFCO and Aid India are well positioned to provide targeted and timely interventions for vulnerable families in need of immediate assistance. Their intimate knowledge of local communities and access to local networks allow for a more personalized approach to aid — an approach wherein the simple act of having a community worker knock on your door and listen to your needs can go a long way. A coordinated and collaborative effort between the government and grassroots response is fundamental to ensure that every person — urban or rural, citizen or foreigner, documented or undocumented — has access to food.

This pandemic is unlike anything most of us have ever witnessed, yet the pattern of vulnerability along lines of social inequities is by no means new.

With every natural disaster, epidemic, or conflict, marginalized populations have been disproportionately affected. Societies must look beyond retroactive relief plans. No relief plan can backpedal the psychological duress of not knowing whether aid will reach you in time, worrying about where your next meal will come from, or being separated from your family in a time of crisis. We must be proactive in our approach to building equitable social systems and give renewed consideration to solutions such as universal basic income. Whether this pandemic is a harbinger of the fate of the poor in all future disasters or the dawn to a more equitable world is up to us. As a global society, we must choose the right path.