With more than 24,500 confirmed cases, Pakistan is dealing with COVID-19 pandemic. During Ramadan, our teams in Pakistan are working hard to ensure that vital feeding programs for malnourished children can continue. Our healthcare providers have the necessary PPE and are maintaining strict hygiene routines to ensure that their work at health facilities and in communities does not contribute to the spread of the virus. We’re helping to ensure that routine health services are safely available. Public health is our top priority.
However, disease containment measures could provoke a collapse of the country’s agricultural system and endanger the lives of millions of people, according to Jennifer Ankrom, Action Against Hunger’s Country Director in Pakistan. In the below Q&A, Ankrom details the challenges of fighting the virus in Pakistan, explains why we are worried about the long-term consequences for agricultural communities and warns of a possible food crisis that could devastate Pakistan and its neighbors.
Q: WHERE DOES ACTION AGAINST HUNGER OPERATE IN PAKISTAN? HOW DOES HUNGER AFFECT THOSE COMMUNITIES?
In Pakistan, the population is already strongly exposed and vulnerable to hunger. According to a national survey, 37% of the population was food insecure in 2018.
We work in the rural areas of the Sindh region, where 48 million people live. It is the second largest food-producing province in the country and the point of entry for most imports. But it is also a region where 46% of children are stunted and 23% suffer from wasting.
In this fragile context, efforts to limit the spread of the virus through the implementation of containment measures can have immediate and long-term socio-economic, human and environmental consequences. For the country’s economy, it will take a lot of effort and time to recover.
Q: HOW DOES COVID-19 THREATEN PAKISTAN’S FOOD SYSTEM?
It is important to emphasize the fact that the risk of the virus spreading in the country is very high. So far, we have identified more than 24,000 confirmed cases in Pakistan. This is partly due to the fact that, in the cities, we are facing sanitation problems, a general lack of knowledge on how to treat symptoms, and how to adopt barrier measures such as hand washing, masks, and social distancing.
The government has therefore decided to set up containment, but an exception has been made for the majority of farmers in rural areas, so they can continue their activities because the country is in the midst of a harvest and many farmers have no choice but to work every day to support themselves. But this will not be enough to avoid the agricultural crisis that is looming in rural areas because with the confinement, the transport of goods is greatly reduced, markets are less accessible and small producers have difficulty selling their products, leading to wasted stocks and falling prices.
In addition, the risk of the virus spreading remains real because farmers often cooperate with each other to harvest the crops, and there is mutual assistance between villages, sometimes using additional outside labor. These exchanges increase the risk of the virus circulating in rural areas, where no testing is actually available and where farmers with their low incomes cannot afford to travel to testing centers in the cities.
In addition, NGOs need to advocate at the global level and sound the alarm on the undeniable link between food security and the Covid-19 pandemic in many developing countries. The complexity of the production chain has to be taken into account.
If nothing is done, we could see a collapse of the agricultural and food distribution systems and an explosion of unemployment across the country. Indeed, with containment measures, a large part of the population is plunged into precariousness. Shopkeepers, employees of small businesses or bus drivers no longer have any income.
Moreover, if Pakistan’s agricultural system collapses, the consequences will be strong at the regional level as well, since the country exports a lot of goods to neighboring countries, particularly Afghanistan. With the spread of COVID-19 we are therefore at risk of a regional food crisis, affecting millions of people.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF FIGHTING COVID-19 AND HUNGER IN PAKISTAN?
To effectively combat COVID-19 in Pakistan, it is necessary to combine the fight against the virus with the fight against hunger, taking into account the complexity of Pakistan’s agricultural system. Blockades and restrictions on movement must be accompanied by measures to ensure that basic needs are covered.
In rural areas, we are working with local partners and community leaders to convey messages on how to adapt to the situation, provide adequate materials and equipment, raise awareness of hygiene rules and barrier gestures to sensitize communities and reduce the risk of contamination.
When farmers travel for harvest, they need to be informed about how they could organize themselves within their villages rather than using outside lar to prevent the spread of the virus between communities.
To prevent the agricultural system from collapsing, Action Against Hunger in Pakistan provides preventive and protective measures for farming communities to enable them to continue working and sustaining themselves in safety.
After the harvest, a secure transport system will have to be put in place so that farmers can transport materials and seeds between villages to reseed their fields. It will also be necessary to ensure that drivers respect and apply safety and social distancing measures.
Public health must be the top priority, so there is an urgent need to expand screening and treatment in rural areas. With Ramadan at the end of April, it is essential that protective equipment is available to all. It would allow those with mild symptoms to isolate themselves and protect those around them.
One of our top priorities is also to maintain ongoing nutrition treatment programs. The risks of not maintaining nutrition treatment can have disastrous consequences, especially for the most vulnerable populations.