Looking ahead: the long-term cost of COVID-19

Silvana Faillace, MSc MPH | May 5, 2020

Arceia (right) and her siblings wash their hands at home in Indonesia.

It feels like we’ve been staying at home for years. Americans are itching to get outside, return to work and try to find some sense of normalcy after this pandemic. And for too many in U.S. and around the world, there won’t be a normal to return to. Governments and communities worldwide are scrambling to stay ahead of this pandemic. And each day, we see the human toll of the virus rise.

But there’s another, compounding cost that we need to consider. It’s the secondary toll that shutdowns and preventative restrictions are taking. The measures to mitigate the coronavirus are having their own impact. They’re disrupting food systems and urban and rural supply chains; closing businesses; and limiting human mobility.

“In a matter of mere months, the coronavirus has wiped out global gains that took two decades to achieve, leaving an estimated two billion people at risk of abject poverty,” reports The New York Times. The World Bank is predicting a rise in global poverty rates for the first time in more than 20 years. “While everyone will suffer, the developing world will be hardest hit. The World Bank estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will see its first recession in 25 years, with nearly half of all jobs lost across the continent. South Asia will most likely experience its worst economic performance in 40 years,” the Times reports.

A recent blog from the International Food Policy Research Institute says that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has all the makings of a perfect storm for global malnutrition.” As families cope with unemployment and financial strains, they will try to buy the cheapest calories they can. Those calories won’t be nutritious. “We know from previous IFPRI research that in poor countries calories from nutrient-rich, non-staple foods like eggs, fruits, and vegetables are often as much as 10 times more expensive than calories from rice, maize, wheat, or cassava,” the authors write.

This looming crisis shows how important global food and water programs are. The support that CWS brings to communities around the world is needed now more than ever.

The IFPRI blog has several recommendations for how we can address this food crisis. Among other items, they suggest:

  • helping more families grow food at home “to increase access to nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and eggs to improve diet quality.”
  • continuing to provide maternal and child health services and to protect women and children.
  • supporting systems that allow communities to screen for malnutrition and refer people in need to health services.
  • “invest in [water, sanitation and hygiene], urgently.”

If these suggestions sound familiar, it’s because we’re doing each of these with communities worldwide.

Marciana cares for her garden at home in Timor-Leste.

Marciana participated in a CWS program focused on helping families start or expand gardens in her community in Timor-Leste. She went to information sessions and practiced in a community growing space. Soon, she had a large vegetable garden at her home. “I planted the vegetables the way I learned in the information session and was surprised to see that a few seeds could go such a long way,” she says. Her garden yielded enough vegetables for her family to eat every day, and she sold some to buy other nutritious foods.

In Nicaragua, CWS local partners run farmer field schools. At these centers, farmers from surrounding communities share and learn about how to improve their harvests. In Indonesia, we focus on helping families raise chickens and start vegetable gardens. It’s a one-two punch against hunger, since families can eat and sell eggs, chickens, and produce. In Paraguay, we’re teaming up with indigenous communities to start public gardens. Families learn about and experiment with new types of vegetables.

Thin Thin Khaing lives near Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River. She and her husband did their best to give their daughter a nutritious diet. But CWS helped the community screen children for malnutrition, and Ma Khaing learned that her daughter was underweight. “I thought I had taken good care of her, so I did not feel good about her condition and I wanted to learn more about nutrition and hygiene to help her grow up healthy,” she says. CWS offered nutrition education activities focused on young children in her community, and Ma Khaing went to all of them. She learned about different types of food, cooking healthy recipes, and protecting her family’s health by washing their hands often. Today, her daughter is much healthier.

And finally, speaking of children and hygiene, let me introduce you to Arceia. Her school in Indonesia was part of a CWS program in 2015 that focused on preventing disasters, including health-related ones. Hundreds of students learned about washing their hands properly. “Now, five years later, our teachers and students still wash their hands often with running water and soap,” the headmaster of her school said recently. “Hand washing is a habit for students in our school. They learn the correct six steps for proper hand washing with soap from Grade One. We could not have done this without our CWS friends, who helped us install water tanks and sinks.” Arceia says, “our family feels grateful that CWS helped us learn how to properly wash our hands.” And one of her parents added, “This is so important now with the spread of COVID-19.”

As our global community begins to emerge from the darkest days of this pandemic, the road to recovery is stretched out before us. For many, it will be a challenging process. But we must stay the course and expand this work. We must continue making sure our neighbors have the resources and information they need to pull their families and communities out of poverty. We’ve been doing it for seven decades, and we’ll be here for as long as it takes.

It’s a long road, but we will walk it together.

Silvana Faillace is the Senior Director of Development and Humanitarian Assistance at CWS.