Rapid response: how to deal with COVID-19 in rural Africa?

Written by Steve Wiggins.

What lessons can be drawn from previous health crises to inform responses to COVID-19 in rural Africa? We reviewed seven previous health crises, plus a couple of economic crises, to think about to counter the effects of COVID-19 and its controls on agriculture, food systems, food security and rural livelihoods in the developing world.

Potential impacts of COVID-19 in rural Africa

COVID-19 is expected to lead to large economic losses in Africa, with UNECA expecting economies to shrink by 2.6% in 2020. Lockdowns to prevent disease transmission can take a heavy toll on urban economies, especially, closing down most services, including tourism, and much informal activity.

The size and duration of economic loss are uncertain, depending on how the disease develops, and the measures taken to control it. Even less clear is how rural areas will be affected. Medically, distance from urban centres of infection and dispersed rural populations may slow transmission. The relative youth of rural populations may mean that few infections progress to serious disease and death. On the other hand, migrants returning from urban areas after losing their jobs may spread disease. Because some of the rural population are already in poor health, and have immune systems compromised by HIV, or are malnourished, COVID-19 may lead to more serious disease and deaths. Curative health facilities, moreover, are generally lacking in rural areas.

That said, effects on agriculture and rural economies from disease alone may be quite modest: labour may be lost to sickness and caring, but for most infections, the illness may last no longer than a week or two. Farming is already adapted to such contingencies: illness in farming households is quite frequent, labour needed at peak seasons is typically replaced by extended family, collective self-help and hired labour.

Of greater concern are restrictions on movement and gatherings. They can lead to rural markets closing, to less public transport, thereby disrupting the marketing of crops, reducing demand for farm surpluses, and increasing food prices in urban areas.

The travails of urban economies will affect rural economies as well. Layoffs of workers in the cities will stem the flow of remittances which, in some villages, contribute significantly to rural incomes. Closure of urban restaurants, food markets and losses of urban income will reduce demand for agricultural produce, especially high-value and perishable produce.

Restrictions on international travel may mean less capacity to carry export crops as air freight; while increased vigilance at borders may impede agricultural trade.

Five main changes are probable:

Agricultural output will fall, owing mainly to reduced demand for high-value perishables and export crops, especially air-freighted exports. For other crops, effects may be quite small, so long as disruptions to rural markets and supply chains are not severe. If farm input supply or finance that pays for it is interrupted, then farms that depend significantly on external inputs — not the case, however, for many smallholder farms — may experience further declines.

Women will probably face additional work in caring for the sick, on top of their often already heavy workloads. Their daughters may be taken out of school to help them;

Rural household incomes will fall, particularly for households that rely on high-value perishables and air-freighted export crops, on rural non-farm business and employment, and remittances from migrants;

Some supply chain businesses — transporters, processors, traders, etc. — will reduce operations or close if they deal with produce for which demand has fallen, or transport is disrupted, or they are closed down by disease controls. At worst, businesses will go bust — although some, probably small and informal, enterprises with few capital costs and overheads may survive if they can switch labour to other activities;

Food insecurity may rise, as incomes fall and agricultural prices rise owing to disrupted supply chains. If markets are closed, some households may lose access to food, or have to buy from more distant centres at a higher cost. Households on a low income may well switch to less nutritious food.

Such impacts will be highly uneven. Socially, infections and disease hit some hard, while others remain untouched. Economically, some households have resources to cope with the loss of labour and income, while others cannot. Geographically, impacts will vary by farming systems — the type of crops and livestock produced, their dependence on labour and purchased inputs, and by the supply chains that link them to markets.

Lessons from previous crises in responding to the effects of COVID-19

Shocks, by their very nature, are unexpected. The challenges involved are novel, especially so with a disease, where every pandemic has its characteristic transmission and disease. Decisions have to be made when much is uncertain about the disease and how to control it, and about its economic and social effects.

It is not surprising, then, that three mistakes are commonly made in early reactions. One, early responses can be wrong-headed: at best ineffective, at worst counter-productive. For example, pretending that HIV could only infect drug users and homosexuals, covering up the outbreak of SARS, deflating Asian economies when the financial crisis of 1997 broke, ignoring the views of rural communities and imposing impossible restrictions on them when Ebola struck in the Mano River countries and later in DR Congo — all of these were counter-productive. Only when such policies were either abandoned or outflanked by more effective measures, was the tide turned.

Two, when epidemics hit, medical responses get priority, humanitarian relief comes next, while considerations of livelihoods tend to lag behind. Informal economic activity typically gets very little attention at all, yet this includes much smallholder farming, trading, and the interactions of rural and urban economies. This is particularly costly since most people vulnerable to crises — those on low incomes, who lack assets, who may have precarious health — work informally.

Three, decision-making is not helped when some people, above all those in government, overreact to shocks. Feedback-loops that exacerbate the initial problem can be strong. For example, fear of disease can lead to myths about its origins and causes, so people neither report disease nor cooperate with medical responses. Fear that food will not be available in markets can lead to panic buying and hoarding — by individuals, companies and state agencies — that drives up prices, thereby fuelling further overreactions.

Public agencies can only do so much to respond to crises. Faced by visible distress and often fearing that further impacts will be worse, governments, aid partners, and NGOs feel they have to react comprehensively. In reality, however, their options are limited. To respond, administrative structures, procedures and staff have to be in place. Experience defines both the range of options most likely to be considered and those that can reasonably be implemented within the short to medium term. This applies especially to interventions in the field, for example, to safety nets.

Silver linings, however, can be seen. Recovery from a crisis can be faster and stronger than expected. Medical controls or treatments for pandemics can rapidly end them. Recovery from previous epidemics has been largely complete within one year; while much recovery can be seen from previous economic crises within five years of the initial shock.

Recovery did not depend, either, on profound reforms to economies or societies. In part that may be because the shocks were not primarily the consequence of deep-seated malaise, but were caused by specific perturbations; for example, the emergence of potent viruses, the volatility of international capital markets (Asian currency crisis), and a perfect storm of low stocks, demands for biofuels, harvest failures and export bans that led to a spike in food prices. Much productive capital survived these crises, allowing recovery.

Public measures to support recovery were often quite straightforward and well-known: injections of capital, variously through bank credit, small business grants, community funds, micro-finance, distribution of farm inputs; social safety nets to allow coping without loss of productive capital; redoubled commitment to the provision of public goods and services in rural areas, etc.

These succeed because partly it was not just government, aid partners and NGOs who responded, but also those most affected by the shock – rural people themselves. Indeed, in crisis after crisis, what made the difference for most individuals affected and their households was their ability to cope — or not — drawing on the means of the household, extended family, friends, local community organisations and local economy.

What’s needed to deal with COVID-19 in rural Africa?

In terms of what to do, three priorities stand out:

One, sustain rural livelihoods as far as possible. Allow rural markets to operate with modest restrictions and precautions. Ensure farmers can farm, which may mean guaranteeing supplies of fertiliser, seed, and fuel, and in some cases, allowing seasonal labour to move for harvests and the like. Remittances will probably fall, but for those still flowing, facilitate transmission from urban to rural areas.

Two, maintain food systems. Set up green channels for agricultural inputs, processing and marketing: minimise restrictions, give these activities and transport priority.  Find ways to keep enterprises in food supply chains running, or if they must close or operate at reduced capacity, provide bridging loans so they can return to operation when the crisis passes.

Three, protect those most affected. Scale-up existing safety nets to reach more people and if necessary, increase payments. Where such nets do not exist, institute emergency cash transfers. Target broadly to prevent exclusion errors: worry less about inclusion errors. Prioritise rural women when extending safety nets or increasing payments. If rural girls are withdrawn from school, encourage them to return after the crisis — for example, with cash bonuses.

As for how to do it, four key lessons can be seen. One, manage responses adaptively. Take prompt action but be prepared to revise responses in the light of incoming information. Engaging with communities — which needs time and resources if it is not to be mere co-opting — not only generates critical information but can also generate practical responses that work locally, that outsiders may not see.

Two, to allow adaptive management, invest in understanding what is happening. Rapid data gathering and analysis — on changes to livelihoods, food supply chains, rural markets and food security — is needed.

Three, responses to previous crises have been under-evaluated: knowledge of what works, and how, is vested largely in the heads of those who previously responded. Hence find and employ those with experience of previous crises. Include specialists from across the board: avoid privileging the views of any group of specialists.

Four, recognise capacity limits, acknowledge what is feasible. Options that are feasible may seem insufficient to deal with the crisis. They may be modest rather than radical. As stated, however, experience shows they can make a difference, if only because in part, those most affected are often making great efforts to resolve the difficulties they face. External support that works with local responses can make a difference.

This blog is based on the Rapid Evidence Review: Policy interventions to mitigate negative effects on poverty, agriculture and food security from disease outbreaks and other crises, which was led by Steve Wiggins and colleagues at ODI and was conducted jointly with support from the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) and the new, DFID-funded, ‘Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises’ (SPARC) programme.

Image credit: World Bank, Social distancing in the market. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)