“The Other Way COVID Will Kill: Hunger”

That is the title of a recent New York Times article, by Peter S. GoodmanAbdi Latif Dahir, and  on how complications driven by the spread of the coronavirus has led to increased challenges for many people in accessing nutritious and healthy food. The article is a tour de force—reporting from Afghanistan, South Africa, India, South Sudan, and Kenya—and begins with the following vignette.

Long before the pandemic swept into her village in the rugged southeast of Afghanistan, Halima Bibi knew the gnawing fear of hunger. It was an omnipresent force, an unrelenting source of anxiety as she struggled to nourish her four children.

Her husband earned about $5 a day, hauling produce by wheelbarrow from a local market to surrounding homes. Most days, he brought home a loaf of bread, potatoes and beans for an evening meal.

But when the coronavirus arrived in March, taking the lives of her neighbors and shutting down the market, her husband’s earnings plunged to about $1 a day. Most evenings, he brought home only bread. Some nights, he returned with nothing.

The article highlights how the pandemic has reinforced some of the most basic inequalities around the world. Policies that aim to slow the spread of the virus constrain the mechanisms that people typically rely on for food. Here is another vignette from the NYT story.

Food prices have been rising in much of Africa for the same reason that Samuel Omondi has endured nearly six months without seeing his wife and five children in western Kenya — because of the chaos gripping the roads.

A father of five, Mr. Omondi, 42, makes his living driving a truck, typically hauling wheat. It used to take him four days to complete his usual round-trip from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a distance of 1,400 miles. Now, the same journey requires eight to 10 days.

Drivers cannot enter either country without certificates showing they are free of Covid. Uganda has required that every driver submit to a test at the border, waiting as long as four days for results.

Throughout the region, immigration and customs checks have become so onerous that lines form 40 miles before borders. Trucks progress slowly, in low gear, consuming extra fuel. Drivers submit to the maddening wait while fretting over increased costs.

“You know you are going to spend three days in the truck without taking a bath,” Mr. Omondi said. “You can’t even park on the side of the road and relax. People will pass you.”

This is all consistent with the results of a new paper I’ve been working on with my colleagues at the World Bank, Serge Adjognon and Aly Sanoh, “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Food Security: Evidence from West Africa.” In the paper, we focus our analysis on Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa. If you have time to read our paper, we’d love your comments and feedback. Here is the abstract.

We document some of the first estimates of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on food security in low- and middle-income countries. In this paper, we combine nationally representative pre-pandemic household survey data with follow-up phone survey data from Mali and exploit sub-national variation in the intensity of pandemic-related disruptions between urban and rural areas. These disruptions stem from both government policies aiming to slow the spread of the virus and also individual behavior motivated by fear of contracting the virus. We find evidence of increasing food insecurity in Mali associated with the pandemic. Difference-in-difference estimates show that moderate food insecurity increased by about 8 percentage points—a 33 percent increase—in urban areas compared to rural areas in Mali. Our estimates are substantially larger than existing predictions of the average effect of the pandemic on food security globally and therefore highlights the critical importance of understanding effect heterogeneity.

All of this points to what most of us already know, that the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will extend far beyond health outcomes and far into the future. Addressing the deepened inequities driven by the pandemic will take a coordinated and global effort, at a time when global coordination has perhaps never been more challenging. The good news is we have the resources to address these challenges. Let’s make effective choices together!

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