Issue No. 4 | 30 April 2020

Pandemic, flawed state measures ravage food security in Asia

PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) partners from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam shared their insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the precariousness of food security in the region.

Roughly 422 million farms are in Asia, and about 15 million rural people in the region rely on the lay of the land for food and livelihood. (Photo from

The coronavirus pandemic has forced developing economies to tighten their purse strings and is poised to push tens of millions of people further to the brink of hunger.

Such is the recent forecast from the head of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) who worried a ”famine of biblical proportion” is at hand, if governments do not provide due humanitarian aid, including food and cash relief, at once.

What was once a public health emergency has grown into a larger global crisis with impacts shuddering across Asia, where 353.6 million people were food-insecure based on UN estimates, even before the COVID-19 outbreak. The numbers could even swell, with food production shocks upending markets as the pandemic exposes the structural defects of prevailing agricultural and food systems.

About 75% of the 570 million farms in the world are in Asia, and 90% of the global seafood production volume also comes from the region. But, with lockdown orders in place, too few farmers and fishers can resume work, too few truckers can reach consumers, and too many air freight shipments for fresh produce remain grounded.

PANAP partners and other food security advocates fear that, should these issues continue unaddressed, supply chains are bound to snap.

Second-order fallout

Though some nationwide restriction measures may not expressly forbid a country’s food industry’s activities, distribution and retailing systems have still been dealt a huge blow.

“People are really suffering,” said Herman Kumara, convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO) in Sri Lanka. “When you go to fisheries, the people are affected because they may be allowed to go to sea, but no traders go and buy their products.” Fish-laden boats that had returned to port after weeks out at sea struggled with where to sell their catch.

This is also true in Selangor, Malaysia’s most populous state, where some vegetable farmers have reportedly had to dump their stocks when authorities set up roadblocks and retailers shuttered wholesale markets, following the government’s movement control order (MCO) since March 18.

In Sabah, one farmer decided to just give away excess harvest that he had not been able to sell, said Adrian Pereira, director of the North-South Initiative, a Malaysian group working on sustainable development.

“It’s quite unfortunate,” said Pereira. “At the same time, the supply chain is not smart enough to redirect these tons and tons of fruits and vegetables to people in need.”

A vendor wearing a protective mask waits for customers at a market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo from Reuters)

What many fear could be an impending food crisis is not simply a matter of logistics, particularly at a time when constituents turn to government officials, who might capitalize on the public health emergency.

“There are plenty to distribute. But will the people receive them fairly? Will the people receive them in time?” said Mike Jok, secretary general of the Society for Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak (SCRIPS). “Some politicians have used this opportunity to promote themselves, just like some kind of Santa Claus.”

Yet several sectors remain off the government’s radar. Uncertainty over food is especially mounting for millions of migrant workers stuck in Malaysia. While they are at risk of COVID-19 infection, living as many of them do in cramped quarters in the city’s outskirts, they worry more about dwindling food supplies as their cash runs out.

Indonesians, for example, make up over a million of Malaysia’s migrant workers, and some 62,000 of them have been able to return home, where the situation is, however, much grimmer. More than 30 million Indonesians have retreated to villages that authorities find harder to supply with food or cash subsidies, said Rossana Dewi, director of environmental group Gita Pertiwi.

Still, many undocumented overseas workers in Malaysia heeded the Indonesian government’s plea to stay put in order to fend off any trans-border spread of the coronavirus. Left behind, they despair of losing their jobs for sure once the MCO is lifted. 

This is a common concern for more than 5.5 million migrant laborers in Malaysia, over half of whom are undocumented and engaged in construction and manufacturing work. They have long been vulnerable to workplace abuse — then came the pandemic, which some employers are now exploiting to further take advantage of them.

“Many companies are using the opportunity to retrench migrant workers, and some are not even paying salaries from even before the MCO,” said Glorene Das, director of Tenaganita, a group working for the protection of migrants, refugees, women and children. “Not having enough cash makes it even more difficult to survive.”

Given Malaysia’s history of brutal immigration crackdowns, many are all the more afraid to come out and seek help. Their immigration status prevents asylum seekers and undocumented workers from even going out to buy groceries, lest the police detain them, Das added.

Lockdowns and crackdowns

In India, the states’ support for the country’s 1.3 billion people has come under scrutiny since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced, with scarcely four hours’ notice, one of modern history’s largest and most drastic lockdowns.

Overnight, public transportation ground to a halt, prompting countless millions of citizens to either stay in crowded urban centers, under squalid conditions, or try and return to their villages by walking hundreds of kilometers. 

The latter group comprised scores of thousands of migrant workers, or those who had come from other states for relatively more lucrative jobs in the cities’ bustling informal economy. Crossing state borders on their way home, some 200 people were reported to have died of starvation and exhaustion, as of April 13. Those who did not make the journey can now return safely after a mandatory quarantine period, based on the latest notice from the home ministry.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden declaration of a nationwide lockdown led to a mass exodus of thousands of migrant workers from major cities. (Photo from CNN)

Meanwhile, in rural India, relaxing stay-at-home directives could not come at a better time.

In Andhra Pradesh, “the rice bowl of India,” the state-sponsored aid — cash assistance worth USD 13.3 per family, plus five kilograms of rice per head, one kilogram of sugar, and one liter of oil — not only took 10 days of delivery since the start of the lockdown, but was also available only to those with government-issued cards certifying them as living below the poverty line.

The recognized recipients exclude the otherwise eligible 157,000 families in the state, but who do not have the documents to prove they are scraping by below the national poverty threshold, said Poguri Chennaiah, national secretary of Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU), one of the biggest agricultural union federations in southern India.

In nearby Pakistan, several groups also called into question the government’s definition of the country’s poor.

Whoever fits said baseline would be among the primary beneficiaries of the estimated USD 7.43 billion socioeconomic relief package that Prime Minister Imran Khan unveiled in late March, after seeking loans from three multilateral creditors — the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). 

“But, for this relief package, there is no mention of farmers or livestock people — it’s just a blanket thing. And no one knows who would benefit from that little amount [per household],” Nasira Habib, founder and director of Khoj Society for People’s Education.

As in much of the Global South, farming systems in Pakistan remain labor-intensive and reliant on traditional farm laborers, who usually live hand-to-mouth in other far-flung provinces.

“The problem, then, is for those who are coming from outside for harvesting,” said Wali Hader, chief executive of Roots for Equity, an NGO, citing how containment measures and suspended public transportation left produce rotting in many fields, with no farm workers to harvest them.

The situation is no different in India. Among the poorest segment of society are farmers, to whom the country owes 16% of its GDP and who constitute more than half of its workforce. Yet, with farm work at a standstill, they now form part of the population forced to idle at home.

“Maybe, for at least eight or twelve months from now, we won’t have any food issues and things are manageable,” said Dileep Kumar, programme coordinator of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) India. “But the upcoming farming season is critical, which the government must give much attention to. Otherwise, in the coming year, we may face severe food shortage because states have struggles exporting their food, even across neighboring states.”

To ease rural distress, the government later on vowed to keep markets open, albeit only for several hours. Still, fear grips villagers, with reports of police harassment going around.

“The police are very violent,” said Chennaiah, who is also the chairperson of the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC). He said farmers had to sell their produce right away, then run back home, as the police would beat up even those who missed the curfew by a few minutes. “They don’t even see the relevance if somebody is in an emergency. They don’t see anything. They just pick people up.” 

Addressing people’s urgent needs

Tensions with the police or military indeed run high in countries where the vast majority perceive government action to be unequal to people’s needs amid the roiling crisis.

“Generally, there is a disjoint between the government’s lockdown guidelines and what is happening on the ground,” said Kathryn Manga of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP), referring to the promised social amelioration program benefits that have yet to reach many villages.

Food rights advocates, together with volunteers, sort out relief packs containing vegetables and rice sourced from local farmers and to be delivered to urban-poor and peasant communities affected by the partial lockdown in the Philippines. (Photo from

Delayed government aid has compelled Filipino peasant rights advocates to take matters into their own hands, transforming their social media platforms into crowdfunding channels. They initiate drives to buy and deliver meals to cash-strapped families or to set up soup kitchens.

Sadly, even relief volunteers are not spared from harsh lockdown measures that state forces implement, as in the case last April 19, in the Philippines, when seven civilians on their way to give out food packs to peasant and urban-poor households were illegally arrested. Though they had brought valid quarantine passes, the local police nonetheless charged them with supposed violations of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) policies and, more outrageously, with incitement to sedition.

Despite the increasingly repressive environment, cause-oriented groups like KMP and other PANAP partners continue their efforts to help address the immediate needs of impacted communities, including food.

In Sri Lanka, the Vikalpani Women’s Federation is maximizing social media to promote principles of agroecology, which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has endorsed as one immediate solution to soften the pandemic’s impact on the most vulnerable. Chathu Sewwandi, the group’s project coordinator, said that urban gardening, in particular, is gaining momentum among locals sheltered in place.

Community organizers in Cambodia are also using social media networks to coordinate with their members who they would otherwise have trouble reaching out to because of lockdowns.

“We also promote and help our members to increase their production for food security,” said Keo Chanra, general secretary of the Coalition of Cambodia Farmer Community (CCFC). “And for emergencies, we also reserve food to support farmers who are already poor.”

The viral outbreak proves another uphill battle for Cambodia, coming on the heels of its most severe drought yet. Farmers and fishers in the lower Mekong are still reeling from last year’s debt burden of withered crops due to no monsoon rains and the river’s record-low levels.

Normal market mechanisms would have allowed some recovery from Cambodia’s diminished agricultural production, but the pandemic has so far set off price inflations and disruptions in domestic supply chains. In early April, Prime Minister Hun Sen went on to halt some rice exports and extended the ban to include fish exports, taking the cue from neighboring Vietnam.

Vietnam, the world’s third largest rice supplier, has lately been on the international community’s spotlight, not only for its initial decision to stockpile rice and, in mid-April, to replace said ban with an export quota.

The decision highlighted one of the basic flaws of neoliberal, global market-driven and corporate-led food production policy. Instead of lauding Vietnam’s move to ensure its own food security, the FAO and other policy makers criticized it as undermining the food security of countries that heavily depend on Vietnam for their rice supply, while ignoring the inherent weaknesses of an import-dependent food program.  

Vietnamese officials have assured that, “in quarantined places, people are provided freely with daily food and necessary equipment and financial support from the government,” said Than Nguyen Phuong Hai, project coordinator of the Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED).

The country’s rice ATMs, for instance — machines that dispense free rice — would have seemed less exceptional, if other nations had similarly set out to put public welfare above any draconian measures on their agenda. While there is much to combat during the pandemic, Vietnam’s next steps might still prove crucial in forestalling a larger food crisis at Asia’s doorstep.

In reality, the food crisis in Asia and elsewhere has already been devastating many communities even before the COVID-19 outbreak, characterized mainly by hunger and poverty – including of the direct food producers such as farmers and farmworkers – despite the evident capacity of the world to feed the people. What the pandemic did is to further deepen this crisis.

The bad news is that most governments in the region are not only unable or unwilling to address the people’s urgent needs in these precarious times. Many are also pushing for business as usual in terms of food and agriculture policies, even as they introduce more repressive measures that they tout as the “new normal” under the guise of responding to the pandemic and its aftermath.

The good news is that the pandemic is also teaching the people about the need and urgency to fight back and assert their collective rights to food – from organizing immediate food relief efforts to challenging prevalent policies and models of food production. ###

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