Millions of people living through the horrors of conflict and war are now pushed to the brink of survival by COVID-19

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The ongoing economic and food security impact of COVID-19 is massive and appears likely to worsen over time. In countries affected by conflict, millions already live with little or no healthcare, food, water and electricity, as well as volatile prices and destroyed infrastructure. COVID-19’s impact could set in motion a vicious circle of lost income, deepening poverty and hunger.

Narjas, a small business owner in Libya, who sews bags to sell to bakeries, saw her business fail, “I was planning to expand my business and buy a new machine, but because of the coronavirus I can no longer buy the fabric I needed, and the bakery will no longer buy my bags because of fear of the disease.”

Narjas has now received a loan from the International Committee of the Red Cross to rescue her business. This is a welcome relief, but without a coordinated response from governments, international institutions and humanitarian and development actors, her business, and millions of others like hers, will fail leading to poverty, hunger and destitution.

Nazha Motee’ El Hallaq, a Syrian refugee, who runs a small hairdressing salon from her home in Aarsal Lebanon watched her earnings dwindle due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had a lot of work and then suddenly, the outbreak of coronavirus happened. Physical distancing measures took place and movements were very limited” she said.

The typical coping mechanisms that families use to overcome lean times, asking for loans from neighbours or family members, reducing non-food purchases, using savings, have been exhausted for many. The hardest-hit households were already food insecure, with physical access to food markets restricted due to COVID-19 for the most vulnerable.

The impact of COVID-19 on farmers in Borno state in North East Nigeria has been devastating. Social distancing and the lockdown meant households were not able to go out to buy, or generate the income, to buy seeds.

According to Ibrahim Mohammed, a displaced farmer, “We couldn’t go out anywhere because of COVID-19 and we couldn’t do any business. We stayed home and suffered from hardship.”

According to Elisha John, an Economic Security assistant at the ICRC, “Without the seeds planted, they are not going to have food for their household consumption, leading to serious challenges. We want to ensure that people go back to their farms to plant the seeds.”

The ICRC has responded by providing seeds to 20,000 vulnerable households, and another 16,000 will benefit from this support next week. As well as seeds, farming communities receive cash to enable them to buy food, while working the land.

Worryingly, chronic undernourishment and COVID-19 are mutually reinforcing, as previous outbreaks — Ebola, SARS, MERS — have negatively impacted food security, increasing malnutrition rates. Plus, income shortages could hit families at a time when countries struggle to provide essential services, deepening food insecurity for people already at risk. When movement restrictions are imposed, people face a dire choice between earning a living and protecting their health.

Without concerted action from the global community, we expect humanitarian needs to deepen and worsen, with new short- and longer-term health and protection needs emerging and otherwise relatively resilient communities starting to need assistance.

The ICRC calls for social protection programs to be maintained or increased, and that they include the most vulnerable. Existing humanitarian activities focused on food security and nutrition must also be reinforced.

Facts & Figures

Early indications in countries where the International Committee of the Red Cross operates shows the vast impact of COVID-19:

· In Nigeria, 95% of people in a 313-person ICRC survey said their livelihoods have suffered because of COVID-19, resulting in reduced salaries or revenue. In Iraq the number was 83% (of 130 people); in Libya, the number was 52% (of 190 people).

· In Iraq, 77% interviewed reported having no savings to cope with the crisis; in Libya it was 85%; in Nigeria 48%.

· In Ukraine, 75% of 215 people interviewed reported an increase in the price of basic items, while 47% reported a reduction in market access.

· In Latin America, lockdown measures have had a negative impact on Venezuelan migrants, preventing them from earning an income that covers their basic needs.

For further information, please contact:

Anita Dullard, ICRC Geneva, contact: +41 79574 1554,

Jason Straziuso, ICRC Geneva, contact: +41 79 949 3512