With the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 1.7 million and the number of deaths at 46,000 — an increase by more than 50 percent in just one month — Southern Africa has entered its worst phase of the pandemic. While South Africa makes up the vast majority of confirmed instances, partly due to its testing and documenting capacity, a number of countries in the region have seen dramatic increases in recent weeks.
To curb the surge, several governments – among them Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe – have tightened border controls and imposed far-reaching restrictions on the movement of its citizens and aspects of their livelihoods.
The latest stipulations add to months of socio-economic hardship, with the pandemic having changed the face of hunger, pushing up urban joblessness and greatly reducing vital remittances. Depressed commodity prices and earnings have tightened budgets, undermining the ability of governments to respond to the growing needs.
Even without the additional burden of the pandemic, Southern Africa has long grappled with hunger underpinned and aggravated by pervasive poverty, pronounced inequality and alarming child stunting. Extreme climate and weather conditions continue to hamper the region – most recently illustrated by Cyclone Eloise, forming in the second half of January, hitting much of the same areas in Mozambique that are still recovering from Cyclone Idai in 2019. While the full damage of Eloise is still to be assessed, it is estimated that at least 250,000 people have been affected across Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and South Africa.
Overall, analysis by the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Regional Vulnerability Assessment & Analysis Programme indicates that 51 million people in urban and rural areas are food insecure – the highest number recorded by the programme – a figure that is yet to include the full impact of COVID-19.
While the effects of weather patterns vary across the region, large parts have suffered from consecutive droughts allowing little respite for vulnerable populations.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is now the world’s biggest hunger crisis, with almost 20 million people acutely food insecure. Escalating conflict and displacement, disease, economic decline and natural hazards are all factors contributing to an enormously complex situation.
Southern Madagascar has seen three successive years of drought and a third of the population – 1.35 million people – need food assistance urgently to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Families have resorted to desperate measures and the little food they can find – such as tamarind fruit – is sometimes stretched by adding clay for the semblance of satiation.