Since South Africa went into lockdown four weeks ago to slow the spread of the coronavirus, hairdresser Nasreen Pillay has had no income. Without a job contract, she cannot apply for government aid either.
“If my mother and father-in-law did not help me, I would be going hungry,” Pillay, a 28-year-old mother-of-two from Johannesburg, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She is also fearful the economic squeeze is leading to more crime. Robbers broke into her mother’s house two weeks ago, taking speakers, headphones and other items.
“People are desperate,” she said.
Such desperation could worsen as job losses mount and incomes plunge due to a coronavirus-induced recession, with countries in sub-Saharan Africa particularly at risk of spikes in poverty and hunger, experts have warned.
The world is “on the brink of a hunger pandemic”, David Beasley, head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, told the U.N. Security Council this week.
Globally, 135 million people are facing acute food shortages and the coronavirus could increase this by another 130 million by year-end, he said.
“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries,” he added.
Riots and protests have already broken out in townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg over promised food parcels that never arrived, according to local media.
Africa as a whole currently has more than 27,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with more than 1,300 deaths, according to the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
A possible global GDP loss of 5% this year could increase worldwide poverty levels by 20%, pushing another 147 million people into extreme poverty, according to recent estimates by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
More than half of those at risk – 79 million people – are in sub-Saharan Africa, with another 42 million in South Asia, said David Laborde Debucquet, senior research fellow at the Washington-based think tank.
“We are talking about (people) earning below $1.90 a day … where basically your life is in danger because, when you have this type of poverty and you cannot eat, you will die,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This will affect the urban poor much more. In the last couple of decades, we have seen very fast urbanization in these two regions.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in five people were already going hungry even before COVID-19 hit, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
In Ghana’s capital Accra and surrounding areas where Elijah Amoo Addo runs a food bank, the past three weeks have been “filled with desperation and anxiety – people wondering what will kill them first, hunger or COVID-19”, he said.
His organization, Food For All Africa, had gone from feeding about 150 people a day to preparing 3,500 hot meals daily, he said – and 75% of people relying on them are newcomers who have been affected by the virus, he added.
According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, 10% of the world’s population – about 730 million people – were living in extreme poverty in 2015.
The combination of COVID-19 and a drop in oil prices could increase this number by 60 million, it said, a much smaller figure than IFPRI’s projections.
Laborde Debucquet, however, said IFPRI’s calculations took into account numerous factors, including how African countries’ main sources of income – remittances, foreign aid, oil and minerals, and tourism – were all being affected by the crisis.
Also unlike the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, no part of the world has been untouched by the pandemic, he said.
Africa’s high levels of poverty, lack of social safety nets and reliance on low-skilled labour in informal sectors in urban areas made it particularly vulnerable, he said.
Aid agencies are already warning about looming hunger in many countries around the world, but particularly in Africa.
Rising prices mean the amount of food poor people can buy has reduced, while difficulty accessing quality seeds and fertilisers, as well as market closures, are hurting farmers and traders, they say.
In Zimbabwe, where 7.7 million people already struggle to eat daily, maize prices rose by a third in February, according to charity Action Aid.
In Burkina Faso, the cost of a litre of cooking oil has almost doubled and millet is nearly 20% more expensive, a group of non-governmental organisations said, calling on governments to help farmers and vulnerable communities.
Herders are struggling too as border closures and curfews restrict their movements and ability to feed their animals, increasing the risk of conflicts with farmers, said the group, which includes Oxfam and Action Against Hunger.
Nigeria, South Africa hardest hit
Experts at IFPRI and FAO have said production of staple grains is stable but warned logistical hurdles and social distancing measures are putting pressure on food supply chains, particularly in cities where there is little land to grow food.
“About 80% of urban Africans get their food through informal food markets. So even if it’s coming off the farm and coming out of the factories, if you cannot buy it, it’s as good as not existing,” said James Thurlow, senior research fellow at IFPRI.
Thurlow’s team has been conducting studies in Africa and Asia and identified South Africa and Nigeria as countries that could be hardest hit by the economic slowdown.
Their estimates showed the GDP of both could reduce by up to a third in the first quarter of 2020, particularly if Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, extends and broadens its lockdown, he said.
A four-week lockdown in Nigeria could put an additional 8 million Nigerians – 5% of the population – below the poverty line, he said.
Nigerian tech entrepreneur Jide Rotilu said he is bracing for more difficult times after witnessing business drying up for local companies providing travel, catering and photography services.
He is cutting his own spending and the whole country is expecting “a drastic reduction in earning potential for both individuals and organizations”, Rotilu said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
South Africa, ranked one of the most unequal countries in the world by the World Bank, had a 29% unemployment rate prior to the lockdown. Even among the employed, 18% – 3 million people – work in the informal sector, government statistics showed.
Tyron Naidoo, 51, who runs a three-decades-old logistics company with 25 workers, said he has had no business since the lockdown and is unable to pay his employees.
He applied for government financial assistance a month ago so he can pay them but has yet to receive anything.
“I am hoping I can give my staff something just so they can survive,” he said.