Food insecurity in Bangladesh during the pandemic is rising. Even in the best of times, millions of people in the country go hungry. The Global Food Security Index 2020 ranked Bangladesh 84th out of 113 countries globally, which was worse than many of its neighbouring countries, such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar. Bangladesh's position among these 113 nations ranked by EIU varies from year to year, but each of the last five years has revealed that there is more food insecurity in Bangladesh compared with its neighbouring countries. So, it is not important if over the years we ranked at 82 or 84—or, even if we improved our position from the previous year—what appears to be true is that, even in normal years, there is a prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in many segments of our population.
Undoubtedly, we have made progress on several fronts of the economy, including income, employment, and nutrition intake. However, it is a fair estimate to say that 20 percent of our households live below the poverty level and 25 to 30 percent of the people are hungry and face constant food insecurity. A cataclysmic external shock such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the on-and-off lockdown measures are likely to disrupt the daily balance in food intake that might be expected under normal circumstances. As one study observes, "Despite substantial progress in attaining food self-sufficiency at the aggregate level, a large number of people remain food insecure and hungry in the face of periodic shocks". And, since hunger, starvation, and malnutrition make up the flip side of economic disruption, the role of the government and NGOs is important, and the national government must take proactive measures to stave off long-term damages that a pandemic might leave on the health and physical condition of the poor.
Has the pandemic increased the number of poor?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicated that among populations who are already malnourished, weak, and vulnerable to disease, a "crisis within a crisis" could emerge, in which the current health crisis will be compounded by a hunger crisis. According to an assessment done by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the number of people with severe food insecurity has been rising globally since 2014 and the Covid-19 pandemic will likely reduce food security even further. The current pandemic crisis has been long-lasting, and it is also affecting the food security of households that were not poor prior to the pandemic due to debt, temporary or permanent job loss, or catastrophic illness.
The Daily Star reported last week that a sample survey concluded that the pandemic has created 24.5 million new poor, increasing the country's rate of poverty to around 42 percent. The survey was carried out by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) before the second wave hit the country. The study found that the majority experienced "significant depletion of household income and fragile recovery from last year's shock". In a nutshell, the recovery from the pandemic, after a year of its onset, has been conditional and weak.
The reaction from our Finance Minister was swift and dismissive, labeling the study as "a distortion of the real position." He played down the significance of the findings, and declared that "the government would accept the data on the number of new poor only from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), not from any private company." Incidentally, earlier in January, another study released by SANEM showed that "the people living below the poverty line (upper poverty line) almost doubled to 42 percent in 2020 from 21.6 percent in 2018."
One can only hope that the BBS is in the process of collecting data on the incidence of poverty and hunger triggered by the pandemic and will provide the appropriate foundation for government policy and post-pandemic economic measures without much delay.
Coming back to the latest surge of the pandemic, it has been met aggressively by the government with new rounds of lockdown. One can see from the newspaper stories that the new lockdown will most affect the population who are on the extreme end of the hunger spectrum: weak and less well-equipped to fend off the viral infection. For our poor, the lockdown feels like salt to their wounds.
Mohammed Hossain, a small-scale vendor from the capital's Farmgate area, vented his frustrations to a journalist, "It is very easy to declare a lockdown. But it is people like us who have to face the difficulties that come with the lockdown. Provide us with food first, and then enforce the lockdown."
What is food insecurity?
Food insecurity, a condition defined by limited or uncertain access to sufficient, nutritious food for an active, healthy life, disproportionately affects low-income communities and the urban poor. Food insecurity is associated with numerous poor health outcomes in both the short and long term. The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, and the associated social and economic response (school closures, stay-at-home orders, business closures and job losses) have the potential to dramatically increase food insecurity and its related health disparities among already at-risk populations. According to a study published in Nutrients, a journal affiliated with the US National Institutes of Health, "Households already struggling with food insecurity may find their current situations exacerbated by Covid-19 with fewer resources to comply with social distancing recommendations. Food insecure individuals also may have less flexibility in their jobs to allow them to earn income while staying home, or may be at higher risk of losing their jobs completely, thereby decreasing (or eliminating) their incomes."
Income loss and food insecurity are strongly correlated across households. According to a study done by researchers affiliated with Monash University of Australia on food insecurity during Covid-19 in rural Bangladesh, households with no changes in income are mostly food-secure, and food insecurity appears to increase with income loss. In terms of occupation, food insecurity falls relatively more in the moderate to severe category for households that are primarily farmers and wage labourers than among households with more stable occupations, such as having public sector jobs or owning businesses.
The primary risks to food security in the aftermath of the pandemic are already manifest and come from higher retail prices, combined with reduced incomes. Many have reduced their purchase of fresh food and vegetables, the reasons including poor availability, higher prices, reduced store trips, and concerns of contamination. These factors mean more and more households are having to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. Reduced calorie intake and compromised nutrition threaten gains in poverty reduction and health, and could have lasting impacts on the cognitive development of young children. While levels of extreme poverty are in decline, nearly 32 percent of Bangladeshis still live below the national poverty line, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Approximately 25 percent of the population in Bangladesh remains food-insecure and 36 percent of children younger than five years of age suffer from stunting (a common measure of chronic malnutrition), WFP reports.
According to a World Bank brief published on April 13, 2021, the impacts triggered by the pandemic "have led to severe and widespread increases in global food insecurity, affecting vulnerable households in almost every country, with impacts expected to continue through 2021 and into 2022". This is corroborated by a study published in Lancet based on a randomised control study in rural Bangladesh. The authors conclude that the immediate effects of eight weeks of stay-at-home orders are visible on family economic outcomes and food security, and on women's mental health and experiences of intimate partner violence. One survey found 31 percent of the female respondents have lost their jobs in the last one year—"Covid-19 lockdowns present significant economic, psychosocial, and physical risks to the wellbeing of women and their families across economic strata in rural Bangladesh. Beyond supporting only the most socioeconomically deprived, support is needed for all affected families."
The policy implications are clear and apply to all aspects of the government. There is a need for adequate food assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic and in any future pandemics, as well as public health messages that promote healthy eating. Our national budgets must reflect the desire to promote inclusive economic growth, with attention to the segments of the population that struggle most with poverty, hunger, and undernutrition. We ought to develop a comprehensive national strategy on nutrition advocacy and communication by aligning advocacy, social mobilisation, and behaviour change in communication interventions.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and has been working in higher education and information technology for 35 years in the USA and Bangladesh. He is also Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think tank in Boston, USA.