Social issues impacting household food security in the epoch of COVID-19
Written by: Loveness Msofi Mgalamadzi
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives and livelihoods around the world, and Malawi is no exception. This blog explores the social and food security issues arising from the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures at household level in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented impacts that have affected most aspects of people’s lives. As cases rose and the world became increasingly anxious, many countries started implementing measures to prevent the disease, such as border closures. Malawi declared a state of disaster on March 20, 2020. The first case was confirmed on April 2, 2020 and as of 19th March 2021, there were 33,174 confirmed cases with about 4,101 active cases, 27,847 recoveries and 1,092 deaths.
After cases were detected, the country moved to enforce a nationwide lockdown aimed at restricting movement and enforcing adherence to prevention measures. However, the public argued that the country was not prepared for a lockdown, especially among many Malawians who live on “hand-to-mouth” basis, and protests went so far as to obtain a court order stopping the government from enforcing the lockdown. Further, any move to impose a lockdown was perceived to be politically orchestrated, related to impending elections.
Despite the lack of a nationwide lockdown, different measures were implemented at individual, household, community, workplace and national level which came at a cost, and impacted social networks, economic activities and the population’s psychological wellbeing.
A study commissioned by Young African Researchers in Agriculture under the COVID-19, Food Systems and Rural Livelihood in Africa Programme was aimed at assessing the social and food security issues arising from the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures. This study was conducted with the understanding that the pandemic not only affected economic activities, but also social networks which are crucial for food security at household level as social capital is one of the assets people use in pursuit of their daily livelihoods. The study also provides a different perspective of the pandemic’s effects as Malawi followed a unique approach to control the virus. The study used qualitative interviews with targeted urban and peri-urban dwellers. A questionnaire was sent out virtually to 114 respondents, with a 71% response rate.
Most common COVID-19 preventive measures
The most common measures practiced include wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently, avoiding large group activities, staying at home, working from home and restricting visitors. These measures had several social implications affecting food availability. For example, wearing a face mask has become a precondition for accessing most public places and supermarkets in which individuals must go to purchase food. At the beginning of the pandemic, face masks were expensive, costing about US$1.03, and therefore posed an economic challenge for low-income households. However, prices have since dropped to US$0.23 with hand-made and washable cloth masks also available.
Food market purchases crucial during COVID-19
The study established that the majority of participants access food through purchases at local markets and supermarkets within their locality. However, the pandemic affected the frequency of visits to these markets because, as noted above, people preferred staying at home and avoiding large groups. Before the pandemic, participants could typically make one visit per week to the market, but during the pandemic, they visit the markets just once a month. This, in turn, affected their food availability and choices, as some foods are perishable and because they could not go certain places where specific foods are sold.
Food production is indirectly affected by reduced economic activity
As the majority of participants access food through purchases, rather than producing it themselves, their food production was not directly affected. However, some indicated that reduced economic activities and reduced interaction with parents, as a result of COVID-19 measures, affected their parents’ and relatives’ potential production activities. The majority of participants (63%) indicated they are bread winners for their parents and other relatives.
“Reduced visits to my dependents has affected the frequency of support that I give to them, which is mostly on food and production resources,” said one respondent.
Measures such as staying at home or working from home to avoid large groupings also affected interactions with peers and other relations who were potential sources of food.
Extension services were also affected, as extension workers were unable to visit farmers. This lack of contact between extension workers and farmers can signal lower harvests in the next growing season, which has implications for long-term food security.
Closure of schools meant that children stayed at home for a much longer time, increasing expenditures on food and, among those learning from home through online means, increasing internet costs, hence straining an already reduced budget on food further. This also meant that parents and guardians were spending time helping their children with school work, reducing their economic activities even more.
Social conflicts increasing with COVID-19
Other impacts of COVID-19 reported include incidences of discrimination, as reported by about 72% of respondents. This discrimination is especially towards those wearing masks, coughing, and who have had the disease, as well as returnees from abroad. “Those infected are isolated even after the disease, and are considered infectious by society even after being declared virus free,” one respondent said.
Those discriminated against were unable to go to spaces where they can access food, and their relations were unwilling to come near them for fear of contracting the disease, which deprived them of interactions important for economic activities and food access. Church closures also held challenges, as some participants indicated that they get a lot of help from church colleagues with access to food.
The study aimed to understand social issues arising due to COVID-19 measures such as face masks, washing hands, staying home and avoiding large groupings, and how these social issues impact food security. These measures brought about disruptions in social networking which had consequent impacts on food availability, access and choices. For example, we found that the measures resulted in reduced economic activities which constrained household income and therefore reduced access to food and food choices. Other examples include reduced visits of children to their parents and trips to food markets, and various social impacts such as stigma and discrimination, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, and disruption of religious activities.