Millions face hunger as African cities impose Covid-19 lockdowns

The outbreak of the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has had dire consequences for the vulnerable. Picture: iStock
The outbreak of the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has had dire consequences for the vulnerable. Picture: iStock

Shehu Isah Daiyanu Dumus has run out of money and says he only has a few handfuls of cassava flour left to eat.

The 53-year-old paraplegic usually sells phone cards, but an extended lockdown in Lagos, Nigeria, to fight the Covid-19 coronavirus, has left him stranded.

After the lockdown began on March 30, the Lagos State government sent him a text saying that he would receive a food parcel, but no food came and with government offices closed he has no idea when or how he will get any.

“I am sure that if this coronavirus does not kill people with disabilities, definitely this order to stay at home will kill them,” he told Reuters outside the building where a friend is letting him stay.

Hunger and anger are building in Lagos and other major African cities, with little or no social safety net to protect the poor from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UN World Food Programme says at least 20% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are already undernourished. the highest percentage in the world.

I am sure that if this coronavirus does not kill people with disabilities, definitely this order to stay at home will kill them
Shehu Isah Daiyanu Dumus

The combination of widespread poverty, reliance on imported food and price spikes could prove deadly if African governments don’t act quickly, the programme says.

Under new restrictions in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, millions who once lived on daily wages are running out of food.

Many work as traders, labourers or craftsmen in the informal sector, which accounts for 85% of employment across the continent, and must now stay home with no savings as a buffer.

A war zone

In Lagos, three out of seven of its 20 million residents can’t always get enough food under normal circumstances, according to the Lagos Food Bank Initiative, a non-profit, nutrition-focused initiative established to tackle hunger, reduce food waste and provide emergency food solutions to underserved communities.

The 14-day lockdown, extended by another two weeks on Monday, has reduced millions of people to need.

Food prices spiked as residents raced to stock up; imported rice rose 11% and the price of garri, a staple made from cassava, nearly doubled, said Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence.

Michael Sunbola, president of the food bank, said his organisation was getting 50% more calls than usual from frantic residents, some of whom trek for five hours to collect food.

As his team unloaded rice, beans, oil and cassava flour this month in Agboyi-Ketu, a community in Lagos, Sunbola said many would struggle as the shutdown continues.

“We are afraid some people might starve,” he said.

Read: Recession & food crisis looms for Africa - World Bank

The Lagos state government distributed 200 000 food packs during the first weeks of the lockdown, and aims to give out 2 million more as soon as possible, Lagos State Agriculture Commissioner Gbolahan Lawal told Reuters.

The government has promised cash grants and food vouchers for the poorest Nigerians.

However, videos online show angry Lagos residents tearing apart what they considered paltry offerings. Lawal said those people did not understand that the aid was meant only for the most vulnerable.

But officials acknowledge that the government is barely scratching the surface of the problem.

Mohammed Zanna, with the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, said desperate residents mobbed his truck when he tried to deliver food for the disabled on Monday in the run-down Agege neighbourhood.

Gangs of men armed with machetes, cutlasses and iron bars prowled the area as he sped away, dodging burning tyres.

“It is a war zone,” he said, adding that the group can no longer distribute food in some neighbourhoods without police escort.

Police said they had deployed extra units to tackle the crime wave.

Underestimated severity

Kenya has imposed a night curfew and forbidden most movement – apart from trips to purchase essential food items – in and out of the capital, Nairobi, the country’s Covid-19 epicentre.

On Sunday, hundreds of desperate residents in the city’s biggest slum, Kibera, stampeded during an aid distribution by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The next day, the government banned direct donations, insisting they go through government to prevent “unnecessary disorder”.

Kennedy Odede, whose charity, Shining Hope for Communities works in Kibera, said the restrictions could cause more unrest.

“Food is more important than the coronavirus,” he said.

“The government must see how people are desperate, they will risk their life for food.”

Food is more important than the coronavirus
Kennedy Odede

In South Africa’s Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, government is distributing food to 54 000 people deemed vulnerable wide to the nationwide lockdown.

But even before the restrictions, at least 16% of Gauteng’s 12 million people needed food aid, according to government estimates.

“The reality is that we underestimated the number of poor ... and homeless people,” said acting Gauteng Social Development MEC Panyaza Lesufi.

Back in Lagos, Dumus managed to reach a state worker after Reuters gave him a flyer distributed by Lawal’s team, but he said he had yet to receive any government aid.

He noted that the government was seeking private donations to fight Covid-19.

“Even the federal government is begging,” he said.

– Reuters. Additional reporting by Tim Cocks


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