COVID-19: There is no health without food, and there is no food without women

For many people around the world, COVID-19 will be experienced primarily in terms of the availability, accessibility and price of food

By Gregory Spira, Head of Food Security and Resilience to Climate Change Programs, CARE Canada

On May 20, Cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal, devastating crops, livestock, shelters and homes in parts of India and Bangladesh. At USD 13.4 billion, Amphan is the costliest cyclone ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean.

In regions already reeling under the strains of COVID-19, Amphan came as a cruel and untimely crisis upon a crisis. People in lockdowns had already exhausted their food and relief resources. Some 2 million migrants, sent home by struggling employers, swelled quarantine shelters in the affected states. State governments had already exhausted their financial resources and food reserves.

Today, an estimated four million people stand exposed to severe hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and exposure to disease in the Indian state of Odisha alone.

Similar dynamics are wreaking havoc in poor and marginalized communities worldwide.

Hunger pandemic

For many people around the world – from northern First Nations communities, to the urban poor in the global South – COVID-19 will be experienced primarily in terms of the availability, accessibility and price of food.

Mobility restrictions and loss of income are making it hard for vulnerable people to buy sufficient, nutritious food, and disrupting farmers’ access to markets, transportation, critical agricultural inputs and information. COVID-19 will compromise harvests, incomes, food availability and prices.

Political leaders in several low- and middle-income countries have characterized the COVID-19 response as a choice between containing the virus and forcing millions to go without food and incomes.

At the global level, the projections are of dizzying proportions. The World Food Program projects that 265 million people could face starvation by the end of 2020.

Women on the front lines

Vulnerable populations – including women, indigenous peoples and others in extreme poverty – will be hardest hit.

COVID-19 is already adding to women and girls’ existing roles as front line healthcare workers and caregivers. It is causing alarming spikes in gender-based violence, as women are confined with their abusers. Millions of women have lost their jobs in female-dominated industries like garment factories and domestic work.

Worldwide, women also play a disproportionate role in food production, consumption, and nutrition – doing 85-90 per cent of the cooking, most of the grocery shopping, and investing more in children’s nutrition. In developing countries, women make up 43 per cent of the farming workforce, but earn half the wages that men do. Women and girls are also most susceptible to food insecurity, often eating least and last when crisis hits.

What these figures fail to account for, however, is how much has actually been achieved in recent years. More women farmers in more countries around the world are able to access and own quality lands, grow the food they need and improve their incomes than ever before. Those gains, which took decades to achieve, are today being rolled back at a startling pace.

During the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis in Honduras, for example, women shopkeepers in small rural towns closed their shops and set aside all the food stocks they had for use by their own families. Women who depended on those shops for daily essentials were left empty-handed. Farmers, especially women farmers, could not travel to get the seeds, fertilizers and other essential items they needed to grow their crops, just as the planting season got underway.

The COVID crisis risks rolling back women’s rights and economic gains in ways unseen for decades.

Enter Canada

As the Government of Canada continues to monitor the potential impacts of COVID-19 on global food and nutrition security, Canadian stakeholders in agriculture, academia, civil society and parliament are actively deliberating the priorities that could define a made-in-Canada response.

These include an urgent need to ensure that sufficient nutritious food is available to vulnerable people, and that the world’s farmers, especially women, have resources and inputs to grow, harvest, store and transport their produce to market.

They also include measures aimed at ensuring longer-term economic recovery efforts help rebuild local food systems and value chains that are more resilient to all sorts of shocks, including pandemics and climate change, and better able to meet the needs of women and men alike.

As COVID-19 threatens to precipitate the most severe declines in human development since the Human Development Index was introduced in 1990, inspired global leadership is badly needed and in limited supply.

Canada has an opportunity to put its feminist foreign policy in action by ensuring that some of the trillions of dollars aimed at curbing the destruction COVID-19 fallout reach women on the front lines of this crisis who are leading efforts to recover better, greener and more inclusively.

By putting women at the centre of the COVID-19 response – as leaders, innovators, farmers, caretakers, and saleswomen – we may defend gains in human rights and development, while making the world a safer place for all of us.