A disproportionate cost
The continuing lockdown scenario is now at the cusp of creating a greater humanitarian crisis as the poor suffer without proper access to nutrition or healthcare
I was really upset when a friend from my native village raised a unique and troubling question in the backdrop of an ever-continuing lockdown- "I know that Coronavirus is very dangerous and that the whole world is struggling. All the same, many people in our village, particularly upper and middle classes are not facing any difficulties in the availability of food but for people like us, what should we pick — safety or hunger?". He used to support his family selling flowers grown in his garden to the devotees visiting the famous temples located in the village. This lockdown has completely restricted the visits of such devotees. In the rural areas, 60 per cent of the workforce is engaged in farming and the lockdown has affected every aspect of their work cycle- harvest, planting, procurement, labour and markets. The lockdown did not account for such situations. It worked for those with higher incomes and spacious homes, who only had to step out for occasional grocery runs. In this situation, food safety is crucial to limit both the spread of COVID-19 and exposure to other illnesses.
India's poorest citizens are paying a devastating price — far bigger than the middle class and the wealthy. While the movement of these migrant workers and their sufferings for food and transport is an occasional cause for sympathy on social media, we have largely focused on them as agents for unwittingly spreading COVID-19 in their zeal to get home instead of acknowledging the acute food and shelter crisis they face. The virus has been brought back to India by our wealthiest who have travelled abroad in the past few months but it is the poorest of our who will pay the harshest price, especially in a country where there is less than one doctor for every 1,000 citizens and only 2.3 critical care beds for every 1,00,000 patients.
In 2019, India spent just 1.28 per cent of its GDP on health. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of the poor who are battling other diseases cannot access the public health-care system as many government hospitals have been converted into COVID-19 facilities. Several people with HIV have been stranded. Similarly, a lot of cancer patients are finding it hard to access basic healthcare services. This must be addressed urgently because one of the fallouts of COVID-19 could be that people with other diseases could end up paying the price.
Globally, before the onset of the pandemic, 821 million people experienced chronic hunger while another 135 million people faced 'crisis levels of hunger or worse'. The lockdown has turned an already dire situation into a humanitarian crisis because of poor planning.
Without food, there can be no health. In India, rural farmers are selling their agriculture products meant for city dweller at throwaway prices to the villagers because they cannot transport them to the markets in cities. Because of the lockdown, they stopped going to sell their products for fear of being questioned or beaten by the police. Though Centre and state governments have declared economic packages for cash and food, there was little recourse on how to sustain their livelihoods. While social distancing has been adopted as a measure to reduce the rate of spread of COVID-19, experts including those at WHO has observed that countries like India cannot afford to have a long lockdown as it may create a severe economic crisis. The existing problems of poverty and malnutrition have been further aggravated due to loss of income for the informal sector workers. As a result, a large share of the population may be exposed to hunger, malnutrition, exodus, destitution and other problems which may be more harmful than the disease itself.
People with ill health and non-communicable diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases are at a heightened risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19 due to a lacking diet and thinly stretched healthcare system. This crisis has exposed the entrenched inequality of our stratified, class-driven country and caused severe panic because the Centre and state governments could not act quickly enough on a number of measures such as availability of food, necessary items, medicines, financial help, shelter to the needy and smooth transition of migrant workers.
Nevertheless, the current COVID-19 generated food environment disruption poses a huge global challenge but also an opportunity. Mitigating its consequences with collaborative solutions, solidarity and reinforcement of local food systems has shown the way towards a sustainable transformation to resilient and sustainable food systems with healthy nutrition at their core. Upgrading agricultural operations regularly is essential. All along the supply chain, marketing and organisational innovations are increasingly important. Thus, there is a need to understand the role of the Government and the private sector in strengthening agriculture and facilitating the adoption of more percipient practices at the farm and agro-food firm level. One post-COVID-19 challenge will be to restore economic activities including those in food and agriculture.
The short food supply chains and the local producers which were not able to participate in this global business for several reasons (e.g., low production capacity, non-competitive prices, etc.) were negatively affected by the expansion of the market. Globalisation should not be treated negatively but now we are facing a critical situation because many countries are closing their borders, making the availability of ample food supplies a doubtful prospect.
Strengthening research activities providing technical solutions aimed at improving short food supply chains is essential. Therefore supply and distribution chains must guarantee the delivery of food to the most vulnerable sections of our population, especially in densely populated urban settlements and rural areas, while at the same time containing COVID-19.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal