In a little while from now, COVID will kill not just with sickness. There is another risk

Peter S Goodman, Abdi Latif Dahir and Karan Deep Singh
Contd from prev issue
An outbreak of pandemic-related nationalism — with countries blaming one another for the spread of the disease — has produced an escalating wave of trade barriers that has amplified the trouble on the roads. Rwanda has refused to allow Tanzanian truck drivers to haul goods into the country, forcing a time-consuming change of driver at the border.
All of these factors have combined to limit the supply of food, pushing prices higher, just as vast numbers of people have seen their incomes depleted.
In a recent survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 11 African countries — among them Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo — 85% of the respondents said food was available in their local markets. But 94% reported that prices had increased, and 82% said incomes were down.
Ethiopians are voracious consumers of onions, folding them into seemingly every dish. Much of this staple is imported from neighboring Sudan. But with the border now shut, the price of onions has skyrocketed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, home to 6 million.
This has tightened the pressure on Mulunesh Moges, 38, a mother of two who sells clothes at an open-air market.
“My customers are almost down to zero,” Moges said. “I sit at my shop the whole day without doing anything.” Her daily earnings used to run about 200 Ethiopian birr (about $5) — enough to feed her family. Lately, she has earned next to nothing.
“We used to eat three times a day,” she said. “Now it’s once or twice. I’m always calculating what to feed my children.”
Birchat Abdala runs a streetside tea and coffee kiosk. Her daily earnings have dropped by more than two-thirds to 30 birr (about 83 cents).
“In the morning, I used to feed my children eggs and bread,” she said. “Now, I feed them only bread, or whatever is left over from my business. We eat whatever we can get our hands on.”
A Counterintuitive Problem: Falling Demand
Across the Arabian Sea, in New Delhi, Champa Devi and her family have responded to a loss of income by downgrading their diet.
She earns her living cleaning homes. Her husband lost his job as a driver early in the year. Then the pandemic emerged, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose a lockdown and making it virtually impossible for her husband to find another job. Their favorite fruits, bananas and apples, have become luxuries they can no longer afford.
“We have to squeeze our wallets," said Devi, 29, the mother of a 9-month-old daughter. “Now, we’re surviving on dal and roti”.
The shutdown eliminated paychecks for office workers in major cities. Migrant workers lost their construction jobs. The poorest of the poor were deprived of meagre livings gained by gathering scraps of metal and plastic from streets. This translated into a monumental reduction of spending power in a nation of 1.3 billion.
And that produced what seems like a counterintuitive problem in the midst of rising hunger: Falling demand for crops.
In Haryana, Satbir Singh Jatain last month relinquished his bottle gourds to the elements, allowing them to rot on the vine rather than wasting the effort to harvest them. The price they would have fetched would not have covered the cost of labour or transportation.
“There’s no point in even picking them and taking them to the market,” he said.
Since the lockdown, Jatain, a third-generation farmer, has lost over Rs 7,00,000, he said.
Initially, he could not get his tomatoes to market. What little he gained by selling the crop near his village covered less than a third of his costs. As the tomatoes began rotting, he became so enraged that he ran them over with a tractor.
“The lockdowns have destroyed farmers,” he said. “Now, we have no money to buy seeds or pay for fuel.”
Across India, farm labourers complain they are not being paid, forcing their families to cut their spending on food.
Jatain is on the hook for bank loans reaching nearly Rs 13 lakh. He owes money lenders in his village. “I can never pay it back, and soon they will come for my land,” he said. “There is nothing left for us.”
The Perils of Seeking Help
In Afghanistan, Bibi felt a mixture of dread and terror as her 6-year-old daughter, Zinab, sank further into a state of malnutrition. Her skin was going pale as her body diminished. She was losing energy.
“I could see with my own eyes that the child was withering away,” Bibi said.
She had taken her daughter to several supposed doctors around her village. They administered folk remedies, advised prayer and urged Zinab to eat. But her appetite was minimal. And the family had little food.
The prices of staples like flour, rice, cooking oil and sugar were all rising. Many of these products were trucked in from Pakistan, Iran and Kazakhstan. So long as the market remained closed, Bibi’s husband was without work.
By the middle of July, Zinab required serious medical attention, necessitating a trip to the capital city of Khost province. Bibi was deeply reluctant to make the journey. Getting to the city entailed a 90-minute drive through a forbidding landscape rife with tribal conflicts, the territory controlled neither by the Afghan government nor the insurgent Taliban. The roads were too frequently lined with deadly explosive devices.
And now a new horror was layered atop the usual sources of fear. The coronavirus had killed more than 15 people in her village of perhaps 500. Beyond its confines lay a seemingly infinite number of potential carriers.
This was the calculation that was preventing people from seeking critical care throughout Afghanistan. Between January and May, the number of Afghan children under 5 who were suffering from severe acute malnutrition — a condition requiring hospitalization — increased to 780,000 from 690,000, according to Zakia Maroof, a nutrition expert with UNICEF in Kabul. Since March, the number of children admitted to hospitals has declined 40%.
But if Bibi was frightened to venture out, she was even more disturbed by the alternative.
“It was either be afraid of the coronavirus and watch my child die,” she said, “or at least tell my heart that I did what I had to do.”
Her husband borrowed from relatives to cover their medical bills, and they climbed aboard a minibus.
At a rudimentary hospital in the city of Khost, doctors administered a diet of powdered milk. After three weeks there, with bills mounting, Zinab was still losing weight. The doctors pronounced their capabilities exhausted. The family would have to go to Kabul, another seven-hour ride away.
Her husband went out to the streets and begged, amassing the funds for a ride in a beat-up station wagon headed for Afghanistan’s capital.
They rode through the blazing August heat, arriving in a bustling city they had never visited and where they knew no one. They beseeched strangers to direct them to a children’s hospital. A kindly soul led them to the Indira Gandhi hospital, which was run by the Indian government and supported by UNICEF.
Zinab was admitted and administered regular feeding by a tube inserted through her nose. She weighed only 8.5 kilograms (less than 19 pounds). Two weeks later, she was still shedding weight, her system struggling to hold food down.
Bibi sat by her side, keeping vigil, fretting about the bills and wondering how they might find their way home.
The Economic Times