Many countries locked down in the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, trying to protect the public from infections and illness. But a new wave of research is examining how containment measures came with costs, too. Particularly for the 1 in 12 people in the world who are also smallholder farmers, responsible for producing most of the food in low- or middle-income countries.
Brenda Coromina and Elliot Carleton hear from ILRI scientist Jim Hammond, whose team interviewed nearly 10,000 farmers across nine low-income countries. Hammond reveals the lasting effect of pandemic restrictions on these farmers, and what countries need to do in the future to shield these farmers from falling into crisis.
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Elliot: Welcome back to The Boma. A podcast from the International Livestock Research Institute where we discuss how sustainable livestock is building better lives in the Global South.
My name is Elliot Carleton.
Brenda: And I’m Brenda Coromina. Today, two and a half years after the COVID-19 pandemic first began, more than 500 million people have been infected with the new coronavirus and 6 million have died.
Elliot: Early efforts to protect people against COVID-19 infections focused on lockdowns, social distancing, and movement restrictions.
Brenda: And yeah, these pandemic restrictions affected us all. Remember being isolated at home, trying to wait out the virus till there was a vaccine? Well, those effects were especially bad for the world’s smallholder farmers.
Hammond: A smallholder farmer is someone who produces food on just a few acres of land. And there are something like 600 million smallholder farmers in the world. That's about one in 12 people globally is a smallholder farmer. The smallholders in lower or middle-income countries, they tend to be amongst the poorest people in the world. They are often vulnerable to crises like conflict, climate change, market price crashes. So, we suspected that the impact of COVID, you know, the crisis of COVID-19, would also hit smallholder farmers pretty hard.
Brenda: That’s Jim Hammond, a scientist here at ILRI who recently published research showing how COVID-19 restrictions affected smallholder farmers. Over the second half of 2020, his team interviewed nearly 10,000 farmers across nine low-income countries.
Elliot: But if we think back to those lockdown days, restrictions affected everyone. Even in the United States where we’re from, many people lost their jobs, couldn’t go to work or school, and can probably remember staring at empty grocery store shelves.
Hammond: Yeah, I mean, in many ways, the experiences were similar between those in the Western world and those in lower- and middle-income countries.
The pandemic was, in a strange kind of way, maybe the most globally unifying event in a generation. We all went through the same things. And because of telecommunications, we're all aware of it.
Brenda: But there was one crucial difference that separated the pandemic experience of those in the West from most of those in the developing world.
Hammond: But the big difference (cut)between the richer and poorer countries was the level of financial assistance given to the populations. So, I'm from the UK. My country was able to borrow enormous sums of money and provide grants to businesses and individuals, to regular people, free money in order that the population and the economy should not suffer. This was not the case in most of the world. And it was certainly not the case in the poorest regions of the lower income countries. The populations we interviewed received no financial support, almost no material aid such as food or—yeah, almost no material aid such as food or medicines.
To put it bluntly, in most countries around the world, similar restrictions were implemented, but only in the rich countries was there financial aid to buffer the population from hardship.
Elliot: A couple of the smallholder farmers Hammond’s team interviewed during their research were 62-year-old Irene Kizito and her husband, who live in a small village in southern Uganda. Life became much, much harder for them under pandemic restrictions.
Hammond: During the first year of the pandemic, many countries followed the advice of the global community and implemented fairly strict measures to curb the spread of the new virus, including reducing people's mobility and closing busy public locations such as markets or gathering places.
Brenda: The Kizitos usually sold crops from their small farm at market. But suddenly, prices were falling dramatically. And in the meantime, the price of basic goods and foods was rising.
Hammond: It became difficult to acquire food as markets were closed and transport of goods became more difficult. With all this disruption, market prices didn't stay stable, the price of buying foods went up. And the prices received for selling farm produce went down.
Elliot: In other times the Kizitos could compensate for lost income by finding work outside the farm. But now, they couldn’t do that. And restrictions prevented people all over the country from going to work.
Brenda: As a result, the Kizitos began struggling to get enough food to eat. Some days, they didn’t eat at all.
Hammond: All in all, the majority of households we spoke with had to deal with a reduction in their total budget by about half—about half of their income was lost.
Hammond: In the hardest hit locations, 80% of the people we spoke to had to reduce the amount of food they and their families ate. Often, they cut back on more expensive nutrient-dense foods like milk, meat or vegetables.
Elliot:So as their savings ran low, the only way that the Kizitos could buy food, medicine and other necessities was to sell off their most valuable assets—their livestock.
Hammond: To make up for the reduced incomes, households had to dip into savings, skip payments on loans, take out new risky loans, sell food they would otherwise have stored for consumption later in the year, or sell animals.
Between 60 and 90% of the farmers we interviewed were using these kind of coping strategies.
Elliot: But not all the smallholder farmers faced the same experiences.
Hammond: We carried out interviews in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia. We also carried out interviews in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.
We are not a public health team. We didn’t ask much about the virus itself, or the health impacts of those who contracted the virus. We focused rather on the non-pharmaceutical measures taken to control the virus. That means things like restricting movement, restricting contact between people, closing down busy public places, recommended quarantines and so on. I also call those COVID containment measures, or restriction measures.
So, of the nine countries in our study, some of them implemented more stringent policy responses to try and contain COVID. And some of them implemented no or next-to-no policy responses. For example, in Tanzania and Burundi, very little restrictions were put in place, whereas in Rwanda or Vietnam, much stricter measures were put in place.
Elliot: Hammond says that in Tanzania and Burundi, there was very little disruption to household incomes food security, or the overall economies of these countries.
Brenda: Whereas for countries with the strictest control measures, up to 80% of smallholder households reported major disruptions to things like income and buying food. But that number was only 20% in countries with less strict containment measures.
Elliot: And so, basically, we’re faced with a pretty tough tradeoff here. Strict COVID-19 containment measures were often praised by the World Health Organization for reducing unnecessary deaths from COVID-19.
Brenda: But they also raised hunger and lowered incomes in many communities. Due to the complete lack of aid received by smallholder farmers—and most others across the developing world—many households were forced to take tough actions simply to survive.
Hammond: This is what we call buffering capacity. When things get tough, people have to rely on various strategies in order to cope, in order to make ends meet. Very poor people often have remarkably good buffering capacity, which is born out of necessity. They know the state will not be able to step in and help.
Elliot: It’s obviously good to have that buffer, to be able to use coping strategies to survive. For people like Irene Kizito and her husband, such end-of-line coping strategies—such as selling off household livestock—are often a last line of defense against outright deprivation.
Brenda: But what happens when very poor communities are forced to do this for a long time?
Hammond: The risk is that the buffering capacity gets depleted. And then some other shock comes along, say a plague of locusts, a conflict, a series of terrible droughts and the farmers could no longer cope. That's when the situation could tip over from poverty into humanitarian crisis.
We did another round of surveys in late 2021. So far, we've only managed a first pass over that data. But it seems that things were not back to normal. Some study locations still showed half or even three-quarters of smallholders eating reduced amounts of food compared to pre-pandemic levels. And in some locations, sales of cattle had increased substantially. This tends to indicate desperation, as people often sell cattle in large numbers when other coping strategies have been expended.
Brenda: OK, so we need to protect the buffering capacity of poor communities, at all costs.
Elliot: And this gets back to that tradeoff in COVID-19 controls. Because whether or not farmers need to use coping strategies depends on how severe the local restrictions are.
Hammond: In the countries with weaker containment measures, less farmers used these kinds of coping strategies.
Brenda: It seems like the major theme underlying Jim Hammond’s research is this impossible policy choice between protecting people’s health or protecting their livelihoods.
Hammond: Policymakers in the low-income countries walked a tightrope between trying to avoid a public health disaster and trying to avoid taping the population into a new level of poverty that would undo years of progress.
Elliot: But hopefully, this research can help policymakers better navigate these tough policy choices.
You know, the kind of work that we've done to understand the livelihood impacts, the food security impacts, the poverty impacts, that's part of the equation. So, during the first year or two, you know, the focus was on the health side of the topic. You know, this is a new virus, it causes a disease with health impacts, respiratory problems, deaths, long-term implications and so on—the health impacts. And what was not on the agenda was the impact on people's livelihoods. And you know, in the case of smallholder farmers, that implies food production. And you know, smallholder farmers produce a lot of the food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. So, if the smallholder farmers are severely impacted, the food supply is severely impacted. Yeah, so our work, we tried to balance the equation, you know, that understanding more about the public health impacts of the disease and understanding more about the economic impact of the restrictions. You know, when we have a better understanding of both, policymakers can make more informed decisions.
Brenda: It’s pretty clear now that we can’t afford to ignore how pandemic restrictions affect livelihoods. We need better, more nuanced strategies that suit different contexts when it comes to implementing measures to stop the spread of infectious diseases.
Elliot: And I think that’s especially true in low-income countries. A lot of recent economic analyses support Jim Hammond’s research, showing that the cost-benefit ratio of COVID-19 containment measures differs significantly by country. It seems that when it comes to COVID-19, the optimal lockdown should be less stringent in many poor countries, where governments have to worry not only about protecting people’s health but also about protecting their livelihoods and food security.
Hammond: I guess the biggest lesson here is that precautionary approaches, which are viable in wealthy nations, may have a greater human impact in lower income countries, and that there ought to be more upfront recognition that the difference in economic power of these countries means that differentiated restrictions should be considered. It's an impossible job for the policymakers to balance, you know, the economy and public health in this kind of unforeseen crisis. And, you know, I think the studies that we and other groups have done help shed light on important questions, like, you know, how long can the buffering capacity continue before it's exhausted? When does acute poverty slip into chronic, you know, large-scale economic damage and chronic poverty? If people have to stay at home for one month, or six months, how much will it impact their livelihoods, their food security? You know, maybe these kinds of questions can help us navigate future pandemics.
Elliot: I certainly hope so.
Thank you so much to Jim Hammond for helping us better understand the wide-reaching effects of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and for explaining how we may be able to respond better next time.
Brenda: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. We would love to hear your feedback on today’s episode or the whole podcast series. So please reach out to us on Twitter at BomaPodcast to let us know your thoughts, and also, what topics you’d like us to cover moving forward. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, please don’t forget to share and subscribe. I’m Brenda Coromina.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Carleton.