The provision of smooth food supplies and a check on their prices will be a big challenge for the government during a countrywide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic. The prices have not increased yet but fears are growing if the situation worsens and a curfew is imposed.

People are worried about the possible shortage of essentials and their rising prices after they had to face the ordeal a few months ago. A recent flour crisis has already eroded the credibility of the government among the public. Their belief in the government’s ability to perform has shattered badly and they are convinced now they will continue to face crisis after crisis in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The government remained in a state of denial over the flour shortage and claimed the crisis existed only in the media, which was hell-bent to malign its image. It was true that atta was easily available in the Punjab, but its rates were much higher than prices fixed by the government. It was scarcely available in other provinces. Tomato prices had surged sharply in the country a few months ago, but it did not damage the credibility of the government as did the flour crisis. The shortage was perhaps the last straw. The rates of essentials, clothes and footwear have already doubled in the PTI tenure. The common people are facing the toughest time of their lives in terms of rising living costs fuelled by record-high food inflation.

Inflation has already risen to the highest level in nine years and the central bank has warned that it could rise beyond the target set for the current fiscal year. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that Pakistan’s inflation may jump up to 13pc, but the government’s estimate is between 11pc and 13pc for the current fiscal year.

Experts say trust should be built among people about unhindered supplies, so that essentials are freely available and panic buying could be stopped. The government will also have to take extraordinary measures to check hoarding and overpricing as the holy month of Ramazan starts in few weeks. In fact, a vicious cycle of price hike starts before the holy month in Pakistan. It is a common phenomenon in the country that prices of all essentials increase before Ramazan and they do not come down throughout the year despite so-called raids by price control magistrates. However, the start of Ramazan this year could even be harsher if the government remained inactive, like its past practice.

Unlike other countries, where prices are reduced on festive occasions, the people of Pakistan face the ordeal of soaring prices ahead of Ramazan every year. In the absence of an effective price control mechanism, rates of all essential commodities, including fruit and vegetables, are jacked up and the government’s threats of crackdown on profiteers prove hollow claims.

Pakistan faces the new challenges while it already ranks 94th on the Global Hunger Index. In the 2019 index, Pakistan’s score was 28.5, which means it suffers from a level of hunger that is serious. Pakistan’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index is constantly on the decline with scores of 38.3 in 2000, 37 in 2005, 36 in 2010 and 32.6 in 2018. Latest poverty estimates show that 24pc of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line. If the rot is not stopped, Pakistan will face serious challenges to feed its growing population in future.

In a report, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said Pakistan was among three Asian countries where the rate of undernourishment due to poverty was the highest. The highest rates of undernourishment in 2017 were observed in Afghanistan (29.8pc), Timor-Leste (24.9pc), and Pakistan (20.3pc), the ADB reported in the 50th edition of its annual statistical report, “Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2019.” It said the prevalence of undernourishment in the total population was below 10pc in 26 of the 37 reporting economies, compared with only 14 of 37 in 2000.

According to a report of United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the rates of reducing undernourishment in Asia and the Pacific have slowed significantly in recent years, risking progress toward the SDG target to eradicate hunger by 2030. The prevalence of stunting in Pakistan witnessed a meager improvement since 2000 as the rate of stunting among children under the age of five years has fallen from 42pc in 2000 to 37pc in 2017. In Asia, the prevalence of stunting has fallen since 2000 in more than 85pc of developing member economies for which data are available. Poor food security and severe malnutrition have led to millions of Asian and Pacific islander children being stunted (i.e., too short for their age). The prevalence of stunting in children below the age of 5 years exceeded 25pc in 15 of the 30 developing member economies with available data for 2016.

Almost half of Balochistan’s households face mild to severe food insecurity, according to a report released by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). Alarmingly, of the 36.9pc food insecure households in the country, 18.3pc face severe food insecurity. According to the SBP, almost a quarter of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line, set at Rs3,030.3 per adult equivalent per month. It means that around 50 million people in the country are unable to meet their basic needs. Most of these people live in rural areas where the poverty rate is 30.7pc. The central bank noted provincial disparities in terms of food security in Pakistan. In Balochistan, at least 30pc households experience hunger on a chronic basis. On the other hand, Gilgit-Baltistan has the most food secure households, nearly 80pc in the region, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (70pc). Only 63.1pc of the country’s households are “food secure” despite the fact that Pakistan is self-sufficient in major staples.

Experts say a high population growth rate and unfavourable water and climatic conditions in the country mean that concerns about food security may increase manifold over the next two to three decades. The coronavirus epidemic poses challenges which require short-term solutions. Pakistan will have to look beyond it.