COVID-19 and global hunger: a Zimbabwe case study

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COVID-19 and global hunger: a Zimbabwe case study
Hunger is on the rise in Zimbabwe. Photo: PWRDF

The reports in November and December 2020 were dire. For the people of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, the “lean” season had begun. The peak lean season—the three months after Christmas, the really difficult season before harvest—was soon to arrive.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) has been supporting rural livelihoods, women and men working in agriculture, for all of its 60-plus years. With the support of our generous donors, PWRDF has provided food, seeds, technical training and advice in seed preservation, pest and crop management and market linkages, all while building on local agricultural knowledge and practices.

In recent years important strides have been made in eliminating extreme poverty. However, these gains were significantly stunted in 2020 by the global pandemic. Hunger, malnutrition and lack of access to medication for HIV or malaria due to supply chain and transport deficiencies are all cruel side effects of the deadly coronavirus.

Photo: PWRDF

The Global Humanitarian Overview for 2021 notes that 235 million people—one in 33 people worldwide—will need humanitarian assistance and protection this year. Just one year ago, it was one in 45 people.

That’s a 36% increase in a single year.

Behind these shocking numbers are stories of women and men, many of them farmers. Without enough income, their children are not able to attend school, many of which offer breakfast and lunch programs. So the ripple effect is two-fold on their growth and learning.

COVID-19 has had a compounding effect on pre-existing vulnerabilities and stressors of families in countries around the world—families that were already dealing with food crises before the pandemic.

Countries such as Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, one-third more people are affected by food insecurity this year than last year. COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 resulted in a more than 50% decrease in household income. Twice as many people are now confronting potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity. Farm families have had to sell livestock to survive, knowing that there are still many months until harvest. With new lockdowns, there are far fewer opportunities for casual or day labour to earn income needed to buy food.

COVID-19 infections have seriously increased in this past one month. On Jan. 13, 1,017 new infections were recorded, as well as the highest daily number of fatalities. Zimbabwe has a cumulative total of around 25,000 positive cases, but the country’s testing capacity is limited, as are beds and oxygen supplies. The infection rate may be much higher. Meanwhile, to tackle its own COVID spike, South Africa shut all land borders on Jan. 11, including the Beitbridge crossing point to Zimbabwe—the busiest in the region.

A few days before Christmas, Global Affairs Canada approved a PWRDF project to support one of the more deeply affected areas of Zimbabwe. It’s critical that we support food security—as PWRDF has since the pandemic was declared in March 2020—providing food but also supports to strengthen a community.

The partnership here is significant: the Canadian Foodgrains Bank; Global Affairs Canada; local partners from DanChurch Aid (a Danish Christian humanitarian organization and fellow member of the ACT Alliance); the local offices of the Zimbabwe government; and in-country vendors from whom food and supplies are sourced. By using funds in our Canadian Foodgrains Bank equity, PWRDF is able to leverage a 4-to-1 match from the Government of Canada.

On the ground, the program provides support to most affected families, including female-headed households and those with special needs (e.g. disabled, chronically ill, and pregnant and lactating women). In addition to immediate food supports, a one-time distribution of fast-maturing sorghum and cowpea seed will help re-establish crop production livelihoods and ensure access to staple food when the food assistance ends. The intervention will support 3,600 food insecure households with maize, beans and cooking oil.

“Our first consideration is that people must live with dignity, which comes from agency and empowerment,” says Mads Schack Lindegård, DanChurchAid country director for Zimbabwe. “Our vision as DanChurchAid is for a Zimbabwe in which poverty and hunger has been eradicated and all citizens enjoy their human rights and actively participate in their own development. This project enables us to do just that, and empower the community to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

By partnering with DanChurch Aid, we can draw on the training of Agritex, the Zimbabwe government’s agriculture extension department, to support the farmers on soil and water conservation techniques like mulching, manuring, composting and intercropping. Farmers will be trained in seed management (seed grading, storage and post-harvest management) for future crops.

The first distribution is scheduled for Jan. 25. Our partners on the ground are taking the additional care to work with a community-based advisory committee to identify the beneficiaries. Ensuring women’s voices are heard—as the change agents they are for their community—is key to a successful project.

In our response to food needs around the world, so much impacted by a global pandemic, we want to be present and responsive. A project for four months can help families make it through a tough, lean season, while also equipping people—women and men both—to be stronger.

Will Postma is executive director of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.

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