More than 43 million people in West Africa are likely to be in urgent need of food assistance in the coming months – double the initial estimates – as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.
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Food insecurity could also double this year to affect 265 million people across the continent. In West Africa, where the outbreak of the virus is most severe, it is of increasing concern.
The region faces the three-pronged threat of surging jihadi attacks across the Sahel and Lake Chad area, climate change harming vital food supply chains, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WFP had estimated a 70 percent rise in food insecurity to 21 million people in West Africa this year before the outbreak but now anticipates a further 22 million becoming reliant on food aid by August unless significant steps are taken.
“Even before COVID we had a number of shocks which were affecting people,” Dr. Chris Nikoi, the WFP’s regional director for west and central Africa, said.
“Food flows were already not optimal because of conflict across West Africa,” he said. The pandemic has exacerbated existing crises, presenting an immense challenge to food insecurity.
The challenges are increasingly acute in several countries. After hundreds of deaths were linked to COVID-19 in the northern Nigerian state of Kano, similar reports increased elsewhere in the country, and health authorities are investigating outbreaks in seven other states.
A combination of the deaths and low levels of testing has cast doubt on the capacity of health authorities to detect cases across the country.
In Guinea-Bissau, a rise to 900 from 54 confirmed cases two weeks ago has left health services in the tiny West African country under strain, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
“In a small country like Guinea-Bissau … this dramatic increase shows that the virus continues to spread in communities and faster than we thought,” said Monica Negrete, MSF’s head of mission in the country.
Another problem is the displacement of millions that have caused the armed conflict in West Africa’s Sahel and the north-east of Nigeria.
About 4.5 million people are displaced in the Sahelian region covering Mali, Niger, Mauritiana, Chad, and Burkina Faso. Of these, 838,000 have fled violence in the last year alone in Burkina Faso. Some 1.8 million people are displaced in north-east Nigeria.
Measures to prevent the spread of the virus among displaced populations have been swiftly adopted. Yet, aid organizations say those measures have also increased hunger, as distributing support has become a more significant challenge.
Meanwhile, with schools closed in most African countries due to containment measures, the World Health Organization also estimates that 65 million children now have to do without a previously provided nutritious meal at school, which is when concern returns.
African countries quickly adopted a range of aggressive measures that helped mitigate the spread of the virus. Lockdowns and travel bans were imposed when cases were few, yet many countries across Africa have begun relaxing lockdown measures while cases continue to accelerate.
The economic pressures - particularly on the millions working in informal economies, earning daily wages - have diminished the capacity for governments to lock down cities without rapidly impoverishing large populations.
Across the continent, there have been more than 75,000 confirmed infections and 2,563 deaths until now.