FAO Myanmar: COVID-19 Policy Options Bulletin for Agriculture Sector

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This policy bulletin has three main objectives: (i) to outline key risks and policy options to address COVID-19 impacts on the agriculture and food sector in Myanmar, (ii) to facilitate policy dialogue with MOALI around concrete policy objectives to address the COVID-19 emergency in the short and long-term, and (iii) to support coordination of Myanmar‟s Agriculture and Rural Development Sector Coordination Group and its key recommendations.

Myanmar‟s social and economic fabric, like most countries around the world, is being strained by COVID-19. Health systems are under enormous pressure, people are experiencing high levels of stress due to restricted mobility and fear of outbreaks, and economies and food system are under increasing pressure. On 10 March 2020, Myanmar‟s State Counsellor H.E. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi noted that Myanmar‟s economy “was suffering from the fallout of the COVID 19 outbreak that has already spread worldwide.” In tandem, The World Bank has predicted a slowing of economic growth in Myanmar, down from 6.3% to 2 or 3% in the 2019-20 fiscal year. As reported in The Frontier on March 30th, “In Myanmar, the 'cure' for COVID could be deadlier than the disease”.

There are a number of potential impacts of COVID-19 on food security and livelihoods in Myanmar.
These include i) disruption of food product market chains due to decreased production and transport constraints affecting both producers and consumers; ii) volatility of prices that could create social tensions and conflict iii) decline in household income sources, livelihoods and purchasing power; iv) and fatalities, should COVID-19 spread seriously across urban and rural areas. It can be expected that households with direct incidences of COVID-19 will be the most severely affected through the loss of labour opportunities and income, incurred expenses, and decreased agricultural production. Those already economically disadvantaged, suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition, or vulnerable to socio-economic shocks, natural hazards and conflict are more likely to suffer severely from COVID-19 as it will deepen their vulnerability in the short and long-term.

While health responses are of first priority to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on morbidity and mortality, FAO recommends that these measures are paralleled with sound targeted social protection efforts to support vulnerable people. As noted by FAO Assistant Director General, Maximo Torero Cullen, “Measures to contain the pandemic can cripple the economy. [At the same time, as emergency efforts are coupled with social protection], countries must keep the food supply flowing by prioritizing the health of the workers in the sector and their outputs.” Food security must be ensured in a time of crisis and a healthy diet is imperative to maintaining a strong immune system, which is required for COVID-19 recovery. However, in a country where 50% of households are already unable to afford a balanced food basket, humanitarian livelihoods assistance needs to continue together with new relief schemes to those already vulnerable, including cash and support to agriculture production and coupled with long-term recovery programmes.

In view of COVID-19‟s impending impacts, it is important to ensure that the upcoming planting season is not disrupted, that current distribution channels are kept open, and that vulnerable populations are protected from protracted food insecurity and malnutrition. Myanmar is food secure at national level but due to distribution challenges, closing borders to export, and pockets of poverty, conflict, and natural disasters, several geographic areas, such as border States and conflict-affected areas, are left more vulnerable to the short and long-term impacts of COVID-19.

At the same time, we cannot lose sight of the origins of the crisis, as it is likely that another such pandemic could emerge in the years to come. What many of the recent viruses that have emerged (e.g. HIV, SARS, Ebola, H1N1, COVID-19) have in common is their likely origin in wild animals. The combination of the human population increasing from 1 billion to 7.5 billion in the past 200 years, coupled with the need to feed this growing population has strained the natural environment and increased interactions at the human-livestock-wildlife nexus. Moreover, the trade and consumption of wildlife for food or traditional medicine has increased wildlife-human contact. As such, a coordinated One Health Approach, linking specialists in animal, human and environmental health, should be adopted, placing resilience, nutrition, and poverty reduction at the center of the food system.

Finally, better understanding of the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and livelihoods through continuous assessments and monitoring of key risk factors is imperative to identify action points to address the immediate and long-term impacts