Why the Taboo of Food Security in the Middle East Won’t go Away

Why the Taboo of Food Security in the Middle East Won't go Away

Borders are closing as countries around the world try to limit the spread of COVID-19. In response, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that “if measures to keep the food chain alive are not taken fast, the current shock will have a considerable impact on everybody, especially on the poor and the most vulnerable.”

Agricultural workers who fear contracting the virus will be less likely to work, those who are ill will be unable to work, and those needed to transport the produce may be unable to because of closed borders or being, themselves, unwell. There is no evidence to date that food itself can spread COVID-19 but rumors, click-bait, and fake news don’t need evidence. Videos exist on social media of individuals, bizarrely, giving their groceries a bubble-bath. It’s easy for false information to spread in times of crises and upheaval and this could affect access to food.

There is no evidence to date that food itself can spread COVID-19 but rumors, click-bait, and fake news don’t need evidence. Videos exist on social media of individuals, bizarrely, giving their groceries a bubble-bath

Whereas wealthy citizens can afford to stockpile produce for personal use and often have a financial safety net, those on just enough to get by (and often less) are not able to respond to shifts in the global food market. Those who are the poorest and most exploited will be, as always, the first to suffer.

A shortage of food will lead to a rise in prices. Family deaths, missed harvests, and decreases in market productivity could lead to shortages in essential food groups. After the Ebola Crises, for instance, food prices rose by an average of 24% in the three worst hit countries. In a country like Syria, where 83% of the population are currently living below the poverty line and almost 8 million are food insecure, this could be catastrophic.

In a country like Syria, where 83% of the population are currently living below the poverty line and almost 8 million are food insecure, this could be catastrophic.

Zimbabwe, with a 7.7 million people food insecure, is already seeing queues lengthen in the face of measures that aim to cut down on the transmission of the virus. Many fear that, under a lockdown, informal work which provides food for millions will become impossible. Already suffering under annual inflation which reached 500% in February, many in Zimbabwe are now at risk of dying from hunger as well as coronavirus.

There is often a choice between protecting oneself from COVID-19 and acquiring food. In Lebanon, a family that has fled from Syria told The New York Times that they can either buy bread or protective masks. The priority is clear: “we’re not going to die from corona, but from food shortage.”

In Lebanon, a family that has fled from Syria told The New York Times that they can either buy bread or protective masks. The priority is clear: “we’re not going to die from corona, but from food shortage.”

One of the most effective means of protection is handwashing. Communities need soap and clean, running water. In the northern-eastern Syrian city of al-Hasskeh, the main water source for 460,000 people has been interrupted. This is an ongoing problem for the city which could lead to thousands turning to unsafe drinking and cleaning water. UNICEF and other organizations are able to bring water-trucks into the city but, in the words of UNICEF, “this barely covers minimum needs if the water supply is interrupted again.”

According to Human Rights Watch, local officials and reports say that the stopping of the water supply into the al-Hasskeh area is a pressure tactic to force the Kurdish authorities in the Northeast of Syria to supply electricity to Turkish-backed factions. The Kurdish-controlled Northeast is also hampered by the closure of the border with the Kurdistan region of Iraq and tension surrounding the treaty with Russia.

Local initiatives can help to secure food for people in response to COVID-19. Cooperatives are ensuring that local populations don’t go without food. In Morocco, the food cooperative COPAG-Jouda has announced that it will serve 3,000 families with necessities for three months. The cooperative has also said that it will try to maintain a normal level of production across all its 20,000 small farmers, saying that it aimed to maintain “the jobs and salaries of all employees during these difficult circumstances.”

In Morocco, the food cooperative COPAG-Jouda has announced that it will serve 3,000 families with necessities for three months.

A knock-on effect of the virus might be the loss of agricultural jobs in the future.  Agricultural workers are seen as essential-workers in the US, for example, but this obviously won’t protect them from losing their jobs. The agricultural industry could see a mirroring of what happens when migrant workers return home.

In the case of labor migration, rather than more work being available for native workers in picking produce, the owner of the farm mechanizes and there is a net loss in jobs. Likewise, if workers are unable to attend work during the lockdown farms could be forced to invest in mechanical equipment and, once the lockdown is over, the worker is no longer needed on the farm.

In the UK this week the Centre for Perioperative Care has told everyone to prepare for the virus as they would prepare for surgery. Stop smoking, exercise, and maintain a healthy diet. A healthy diet is beyond the reach of millions and could be beyond the reach of millions more as we move into April and May.

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