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COVID 19 Pacific Overview

September 2020

Expected Impacts in the Pacific

Bula Agro founder, Sant Kumar leads a class in soil preparation for the Tel-a-Woman programme

The actual incidence of COVID-19 infection in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) has been minimal, outside some of the French and US Territories.

However, the economic and social impact of the pandemic has been substantial and potentially catastrophic with significant effects on food security and nutrition – which has been largely driven by the demand side rather than supply.

“Prior to the pandemic, there was considerable variability between PICs, and segments within each country, in the degree to which they consumed adequate nutritious food,” says Dr.Andrew McGregor, agricultural economist and managing director of Kokosiga Pacific [Fiji] Ltd.

“The micro states, which are the most food insecure, produce only small volumes of traditional staples and very little fruit and vegetables.”

“In the larger Melanesian countries and the mid-sized Polynesian countries, much bigger per capita volumes of nutritious food are produced and there is far greater income earning capacity to pay for the necessary food imports.”

Andrew McGregor’s comments follow the release of the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network’s COVID 19 Overview: Agriculture, Food Security & Nutrition – Expected Impacts In The Pacific REPORT.

He explained that despite the larger Melanesian countries having substantial arable land resources, there are sizable segments of the population living in urban and peri urban areas that are food insecure in addition to a significant number of landless people.

“Overall, in the Pacific islands, with the exception of the micro states, there was generally sufficient nutritious locally grown food available.    However, adequate quantities of this locally produced food were not consumed, due to a combination of factors, including: inadequate household income; and, a preference for imported food which is often more convenient and cheaper.”

While the pandemic in the Pacific islands is unlikely to have a direct negative impact on the availability of nutritious locally produced food, McGregor says there are indirect negative impacts on the availability of locally grown food.

“These arise from such things as increased food theft, and the marketing constraints arising from less resources being available for the maintenance of rural roads.”

“Offsetting these indirect negative impacts, is the apparent increasing interest in home gardening by people living in urban and peri-urban areas.   In addition, there has been a flow of some people back to their rural villages and an overall increase in the availability of labour to work in agriculture, where often there is a labour shortage.”

McGregor said it is on the demand side that the impact of the pandemic is now being most severely felt.

“The economies of countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands and Palau are heavily dependent on tourism.”

“In these countries tourism is by far the largest direct employer of labour with significant multiplier impact effects throughout the rest of the economy.”

In Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands, tourism is less important but is still of considerable significance being a major employer of labor.”

“The PICs do not have in place publicly funded social safety nets to cushion impacts of sudden job losses; for the poor living in urban and peri-urban formal and informal settlements, the food that is purchased for survival is mainly imported rice locally grown cassava and sugar etc. The purchasing of relatively expensive fruit and vegetables is now even less frequent than prior to the pandemic.”

McGregor said this has significant food security and nutrition implications.

“For many of the residents of these settlements, returning to rural villages is not an option even if they wanted to. A new emphasis on back yard farming is highly desirable and needs to be further encouraged. However, there are significant limits to what can be realistically achieved in this area.”

View the Report.

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