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Pakistan has to face Covid-19 pandemic with more than 9 000 confirmed cases to this date. Measures put in place to fight the virus could provoke a collapse of the agricultural system of the country. That could edenger the lives of millions of people, says Jennifer Ankrom, director of Action against Hunger in Pakistan.
In this interview, Jennifer Ankrom explains the challenges of the implementation of measures to fight the virus in a country like Pakistan whose economy depends largely on agriculture. She insists that the organization is worried regarding the consequences this would have among agricultural communities and warns of a possible food crisis that could have disastrous consequences on Pakistan and neighboring countries.
“In Pakistan, the population is already strongly exposed and vulnerable to hunger. Acording to a national survey, 37% of the population was in a state of food insecurity in 2018.
We work in the rural areas of the Sindh region, where 48 million people live. It is the second largest food-producing province in the country and the point of entry for most imports. But it is also a region where 46% of children are stunted and 23% suffer from wasting (NNS 2018).
In this fragile context, efforts to limit the spread of the virus through the implementation of containment measures can have immediate and long-term socio-economic, human and environmental consequences. For the country’s economy, it will take a lot of effort and time to recover,” explains Jennifer Ankrom.
“It is important to emphasize on the fact that the risk of the virus spreading in the country is very high. So far, we have identified more than 9565 confirmed cases in Pakistan. This is partly due to the fact that in the cities we are facing sanitation problems, a general lack of knowledge on how to treat symptoms and how to adopt barrier measures such as hand washing, masks and social distancing.
The government has therefore decided to set up containment, but an exception has been made for the majority of farmers in rural areas so that they can continue their activity because the country is in the midst of a harvest and many farmers have no choice but to work every day to support themselves. But this will not be enough to avoid the agricultural crisis that is looming in rural areas because with the confinement, the transport of goods is greatly reduced, markets are less accessible and small producers have difficulty selling their products, leading to wasted stocks and falling prices. ” explained the director of Action Against Hunger in Pakistan.
“In addition, the risk of the virus spreading remains real because farmers often cooperate with each other to harvest the crops, and there is mutual assistance between villages, sometimes using additional outside labour. These exchanges increase the risk of the virus circulating in rural areas, where no testing is actually available and where farmers with their low incomes cannot afford to travel to testing centres in the cities.” says Jennifer Ankrom.
"There is therefore an urgent need to support farming communities and to strike the right balance between health and food security. "
“In addition, NGOs need to advocate at the global level and sound the alarm on the undeniable link between food security and the Covid-19 pandemic in many developing countries. “insists Jennifer Ankrom.
“The complexity of the production chain has to be taken into account. If nothing is done, we could see a collapse of the agricultural and food distribution systems and an explosion of unemployment across the country. Indeed, with containment measures, a large part of the population is plunged into precariousness. Shopkeepers, employees of small businesses or bus drivers no longer have any income. Moreover, if Pakistan’s agricultural system collapses, the consequences will be strong at the regional level as well, since the country exports a lot of goods to neighbouring countries, particularly Afghanistan. With the spread of COVID-19 we are therefore at risk of a regional food crisis, affecting millions of people.”
“To effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan, it is necessary to combine the fight against the virus with the fight against hunger, taking into account the complexity of Pakistan’s agricultural system. Blockades and restrictions on movement must be accompanied by measures to ensure that basic needs are covered. In rural areas, we are working with local partners and community leaders to convey messages on how to adapt to the situation, provide adequate materials and equipment, raise awareness of hygiene rules and barrier gestures to sensitize communities and reduce the risk of contamination.
When farmers travel for harvest, they need to be informed about how they could organize themselves within their villages rather than using outside labour to prevent the spread of the virus between communities,” says Ankrom.
"Finding common ground is our priority because there is a clear link between a food crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. "
To prevent the agricultural system from collapsing the director of Action Against Hunger in Pakistan provides preventive and protective measures for farming communities to enable them to continue working and sustaining themselves in safety.
“After the harvest, a secure transport system will have to be put in place so that farmers can transport materials and seeds between villages to reseed their fields. It will also be necessary to ensure that drivers respect and apply safety and social distancing measures. Public health must be the top priority, so there is an urgent need to expand screening and treatment in rural areas. As Ramadan takes place at the end of April, it is essential that protective equipment is available to all. It would allow those with mild symptoms to isolate themselves and protect those around them.
One of our top priorities is also to maintain ongoing nutritional treatment programmes. The risks of not following nutritional treatment can have disastrous consequences, especially for the most vulnerable populations. ” concludes Jennifer Ankrom.
As a reminder, in 2018, nearly 45 per cent of children in Pakistan will be stunted due to undernutrition. In the same year, our programs were able to support 334,588 people across the country.