Pandemic takes heavy toll on vulnerable communities who must buy food on credit, reduce meal portions or limit the number of daily meals
Just like every morning for the past 13 years, Diana Pereira gets up before the sun rises over Bissau and begins her workday. The mother of five children starts cooking the food that she will be selling in a couple of hours, on yet another busy day in the capital of Guinea-Bissau, a small country of 1.8 million people wedged between Gambia and Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa.
At 7am, when people start passing by her house on their way to work, she sets up a table in the street, lights up the fire for her frying pan, and starts cooking the first portion of snacks. By selling packs of sweet potatoes and peanuts to go, she usually manages to bring home US$9 to US$15 for a 12-hour workday. On a good day, Diana can earn up to US$19 US dollars. But in 2020, such days were rare.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on vulnerable communities like Diana’s. In May 2020, half of the families in Guinea-Bissau did not have adequate access to food, almost four times more than the previous year. Households were obliged to buy food on credit, reduce meal portions or limit the number of daily meals.
The restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic severely affected households’ incomes. Diana recalls her despair as the busy streets of Bissau went silent with the imposed lockdown.
Workplaces and borders shut down, impeding the free flow of people and products. Diana lost her source of income overnight, as there were no products to sell, nor any customers to buy them. Without adequate tools to withstand this unprecedented crisis, most of the population was pushed further into poverty and food insecurity.
“My husband and I do not have permanent jobs, and we get by with a limited income that does not cover our needs, especially our children’s education,” she says. “With the pandemic, financial resources grew even scarcer, affecting our ability to put food on the table.”
In Guinea-Bissau, 69 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Just like Diana, many other women in Guinea-Bissau worry for the fate of their families, even more so since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Alda de Rosa, a mother of four, has never seen her family struggle as she did during the pandemic. There are 16 people in her household and none has a permanent job. Alda sells fruits and water in the streets, for which there isn’t always great demand. As the COVID-19 pandemic surged and the streets grew emptier, it didn’t take her long to realize that her efforts alone wouldn’t be sufficient to feed her family.
“We experienced hunger. We had nothing to eat. The extended lockdown left us with no money,” she says.
In October 2020, Diana and Alda were included in the social protection programme jointly led by WFP and UNICEF.
Financed by the United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund for COVID-19, it’s designed to help people overcome the health and socioeconomic crises compounded by COVID-19.
By December, thanks to monthly cash-based transfers of approximately US$70, more than 1,500 households from the most food-insecure areas of Guinea-Bissau were able to satisfy their basic needs. Diana and Alda are part of the 66 percent of women-headed households participating in the programme.
Mobile phones were distributed to heads of families to facilitate cash transfers. With the additional income, Diana and Alda were able to go to the local market and buy nutritious foods such as rice, bread, peanuts, fish and meat. Buying products locally meant they were not only able to feed their family, but also contribute to boosting the local economy – allowing for a better and faster social recovery.
“The cash transfers allowed us not only to overcome food shortages, but also to provide for other basic needs such as education, rent and medical care,” says Diana.
Now, she and Alda are back in the streets of Bissau selling snacks for their busy clients. Diana places all her hopes on her children’s future. “I did not receive a good education, I could not afford it," she explains. "I work hard every day so that my children can finish their studies and achieve a higher level of education. Seeing my kids obtaining a medical or a teaching degree would be my biggest pride.”
However, as the relief provided by the WFP-UNICEF joint programme was only temporary, the two women still worry about the near future. They know that, despite their hard work, there is no guarantee that they will be able to cover for their family’s expenses every month.
Now more than ever, households such as Diana’s and Alda’s need all the support they can get to survive and provide a better future for the generations to come.