FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 06

A double whammy of Covid-19 and locust swarms

Covid-19 and locust swarms pose a serious threat to food security in Pakistan, where between 1.4 million and 18.53m people have already lost jobs as a result of lockdowns and restrictions. With 10 million more people feared to have slipped below the poverty line after the onset of the pandemic, the provision of food to people will be a serious challenge for the country.

Pakistan has largely been praised worldwide for its efforts to tackle the pandemic and locust swarms, but recent reports by international institutions suggest it will continue to face serious challenges in years to come. Pakistan may have contained the loss of life and the economy but the damage is still enough to hurt its people badly. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), locust swarms and lockdown have badly impacted the agriculture sector in Sindh. In a survey in June, it found that the lockdown due to Covid-19 had significantly disrupted food supply chains across all major agricultural products in the province. “Furthermore, severe locust invasions have been observed, with 73.7pc of respondents having seen locust swarms in their area,” it said in its latest report based on the survey of 410 farmers across the province.

The ADB said the long-term consequences of the pandemic and the locust swarms would become more apparent in the coming months. The report said more than half of the farm households reported lower food consumption and one-third of them reported lower earnings due to the pandemic. Severe locust invasions were observed in Sindh, with 73.7pc of respondents having seen locust swarms in their area. The lockdown significantly disrupted food supply chains across all major agricultural products including wheat, vegetables, fruits, and milk with most respondents reporting being unable to market their produce. Tomato farmers faced substantial disruption, with 61pc of respondents unable to complete their harvest at the usual time. The loss of crops in Sindh means disrupted supplies across the country as after the Punjab, Sindh has the second largest total cropped area, at 3.6 million hectares. Sindh contributes significantly to the country’s overall production of major crops, providing 41pc of rice, 31pc of sugarcane, 21pc of wheat, and 15pc of cotton produced. Less than half (47pc) of Sindh’s population lives in rural areas, which is considerably less than the share of the rural population in other provinces. However, two-thirds (65pc) of the labor force in rural Sindh is engaged in agriculture, the highest among the provinces. “Government response is urgently needed to offset the negative effects of Covid-19 and the locust attacks. The locust swarms may require action to both mitigate the damage already caused and to invest in long-term means to help farmers and communities prepare for future locust swarms,” the ADB report suggests.

In another report, the Word Bank sees an “anaemic” economic outlook of Pakistan, with the growth rate of just 0.5pc in the current fiscal year. Pakistan’s economic outlook remains fragile for at least two years, as the outbreak of the coronavirus compounded the country’s miseries. In its biannual flagship report, the World Bank said domestic economic activity was expected to recover, as lockdown measures were lifted, with a gradual decline in active Covid-19 cases, but Pakistan’s near-term economic prospects are subdued. “Given anaemic growth projections in the near term, poverty is expected to worsen,” the report noted. Vulnerable households rely heavily on jobs in the services sector, and the projected weak services growth is likely to be insufficient to reverse the higher poverty rates precipitated by the pandemic. Economic activity has contracted and poverty is expected to have risen in FY2019-20, as monetary and fiscal policy tightening, earlier in the year, was followed by lockdown.

The World Bank estimates a 33c increase in poverty in India and the situation in Pakistan is not different. “With government estimates of pandemic job losses at approximately 14 million, poverty is expected to increase for the first time in two decades in Pakistan. The pandemic is also expected to exacerbate Pakistan’s human capital challenges,” it noted. A possible resurgence of the infection, widespread crop damage due to locusts and heavy monsoon rains pose major risks to the outlook. Estimates say up to 115 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty worldwide and at least 10 million more Pakistanis will drop below the poverty line. According to the latest UNDP report, global extreme poverty is expected to rise for the first time in over 20 years while an additional 115 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty this year in the wake of the pandemic.

The number of Pakistanis slipping below the poverty line is alarming, but other regional countries, like India, are also facing similar problems after contraction in their economies. However, rising food insecurity is a more serious threat in Pakistan, where people have already started facing acute shortages of edibles. Prices of wheat flour, sugar, eggs and vegetables have already risen to an alarming level. The government will have to take urgent measures to save people from starvation.

Millions of people have lost jobs in Pakistan. Prices have risen to a level where even middle-income families are struggling to survive. In the situation, food insecurity will be the last straw. It is the responsibility of the government to take urgent measures to ensure uninterrupted supplies, especially after it has been warned by international organisations. It is not only necessary for the sake of the people but also for its own survival. The opposition has upped the ante and people are attending its rallies against the government in a large number, only because of rising inflation. A second wave of the coronavirus is also feared. The situation poses extraordinary challenges to the government, which require out-of-the-box solutions.