While there are indications of a decline in the rate of COVID-19 infections in parts of Southern Africa, it is too early to conclude that the positive trajectory will continue. It is however increasingly evident that the effects on economies and livelihoods are severe and far-reaching.
Favourable maize harvests in several countries (Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa) are bringing some relief, especially in rural areas, but food insecurity remains high and it is set to deteriorate further. Recent analysis by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) indicates that 45 million people in 13 of its 16 countries are food insecure, but stresses that the number is likely to increase significantly as COVID-19 progressively impacts the urban poor.
Despite the above average harvest in some countries, regional markets are under pressure and prices are higher than the five-year average. Key sources of income for families, communities and governments have disappeared or substantially diminished. As joblessness has increased rapidly, remittances from breadwinners in South Africa and elsewhere, vital for millions in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho, have drastically fallen. The depreciation of local currencies against the US Dollar has further eroded purchasing power.
Malnutrition in the region is of great concern. SADC echoes expressions of global and regional alarm about the potentially devastating effects of the pandemic on malnutrition rates: such as acute malnutrition across the region surging by 25 percent or more in 2020/21. That would generate a total of more than 8 million children with acute malnutrition; 2.3 million of them expected to require life-saving treatment for severe acute malnutrition, according to SADC.
The pandemic has spurred an intensification of conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, in particular, in northern Mozambique where insurgents have increased their presence in Cabo Delgado province. In Zimbabwe, with a crumbling economy, an undercurrent of popular dissent appears to have been stifled amid government imposed COVID-19 restrictions.
The impact of the pandemic has hit refugees and internally displaced people hard. The few opportunities available to them have been further restricted as the informal economy has weakened and movement has become more difficult. Funding for humanitarian assistance for these vulnerable groups has come under pressure, which has necessitated reduced food rations for thousands of refugees.
Over the past few months, WFP has reinforced existing activities while adjusting programmes to a new reality. It has initiated or plans sizeable cash transfer programmes for poor people in urban areas in several countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi, the Republic of Congo, DRC, Lesotho and Eswatini.
In Zimbabwe – where unemployment has soared – WFP’s COVID-19 response plan envisages a more than fivefold increase, to 550,000, in the number of people in poor urban areas receiving assistance through cash transfers. Having recently moved away from a delivery platform with higher than desired transaction costs with a risk of eroding purchasing power, WFP has explored new mechanisms for cash delivery. A new e-voucher mechanism has been adopted allowing recipients to redeem points for commodities – much like WFP’s SCOPE system, which is also in use in Zimbabwe – together with the services of Western Union where recipients use codes sent via SMS to be exchanged for cash. Given the volatile financial situation in Zimbabwe, having several cash delivery options at hand allows WFP to quickly switch between them in response to future shocks or changes in the operating environment. Some 100,000 people in urban areas were assisted with cash based transfers in July, and 68,000 under the August cycle. WFP continues to scale up the programme.
In DRC, an additional 500,000 people will receive assistance through a social safety net programme in Kinshasa. Working with FAO and UNICEF, WFP will mitigate the impact of COVID-19 by providing mobile money transfers enabling recipients to meet their essential needs. The first transfers are planned for November.
In Mozambique, WFP and UNICEF support the Government in the expansion of its social protection programme mitigating the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19. While the overall programme is national in scope, the two UN agencies will assist in Tete and Zambezia provinces. Once funding has been secured, the activity will reach 100,000 households in urban and peri urban areas, providing MZN3,000 (approximately USD 42) per month for three months.
Following a first phase supporting 75,000 people, WFP in the Republic of Congo has started the second phase of its COVID-19 response, aiming to assist 35,000 severely food insecure people in three arrondissements of Brazzaville via mobile money transfers at the equivalent of USD 17 per person per month. The plan also envisages assisting 75,000 children and pregnant and breastfeeding women in health centres in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire to prevent and treat moderate acute malnutrition following increasing levels of malnutrition.
In Madagascar, in support of the Government’s social protection programme, WFP has provided cash transfers to 113,000 households – 565,000 people – in Antananarivo since April. Under a second round starting in September, WFP is planning to expand to other urban areas to assist 84,000 vulnerable households – 420,000 people.
In Lesotho, in collaboration with the Government, WFP started an urban response programme in five districts in August. Some 8,500 vulnerable house holds—34,000 individuals—will receive mobile money transfers at the value of USD 50. Thus far, 7,500 households—30,000 people—have been assisted.
In its capacity as global humanitarian logistics lead, WFP has set up a regional staging centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, for humanitarian cargo and personnel—part of a worldwide network of dedicated COVID-19 air transport hubs. Traffic has increased substantially and some 5,900 m3 of cargo has been dispatched to the region via the network and more than 1,300 humanitarian workers have used the service. Passenger flights now serve Lilongwe, Maputo, Addis Ababa, Antananarivo, Windhoek and Luanda.
US$662 million urgently required
The devastating effects of the pandemic and its socioeconomic impacts will see a significant surge in WFP funding needs. The unmet requirement for the next six months (through January 2021) for all operations amounts to US$662 million. Three-quarters is accounted for by our three biggest operations: DRC, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.