While Covid-19 has caused widespread lockdowns, economic downturn and strained our health system, we are relatively fortunate in Ireland and Europe.
Irish woman Sarah McCann has seen firsthand what happens when the virus hits a country already reeling from an existing pandemic. That of hunger.
Sarah, who is on the ground for Irish development agency Trócaire in Zimbabwe, says the situation there is at crisis point.
Today, one in three people are at risk of going hungry due to drought, made worse by the Covid-19 outbreak.
This is her first-hand account of the situation facing thousands in Zimbabwe.
Sarah: ‘Angelina Mhlanga has survived many droughts, but this year she had to contend with a crisis she had never seen before: Covid-19.
Like most people in Zimbabwe, 66-year old Angelina relies on the rain to grow the crops she needs to survive. A terrible drought was already causing Angelina and her family to go hungry, but the impact of Covid-19 has left her struggling to provide meals for her three young grandchildren.
“My heart bleeds when it’s time to prepare a meal knowing that my grandchildren are looking up to me to provide when I know that there is no food,” she says.
Years of successive droughts have devastated communities here in Zimbabwe. Drought has scorched crops and many families like Angelina’s are struggling to survive.
Three in four people in Zimbabwe, like Angelina, rely on growing their own food to survive. When the rains don’t come, your harvest is gone. This year’s harvest only produced half of what the country needs, and we’re already seeing an increase in malnutrition.
Even when the rains do come, they can be erratic. Climate change has transformed the rain patterns and drought is becoming more frequent. I have been here in Zimbabwe for five years now, and I have seen three droughts already.
The drought is being compounded by the Covid-19 crisis. A nationwide lockdown severely affected many people’s ability to earn an income. This is in a country still reeling from the Mugabe era that has suffered a severe economic crisis, even before Covid hit. Inflation at the moment in Zimbabwe is running at over 700%. Globally, Zimbabwe is the worst after Venezuela in terms of inflation.
Also, last year we were affected by a devastating cyclone, so it’s really a case of multiple crises hitting the country. As a result, the UN is warning that a staggering 5 million people, almost one in every three people in Zimbabwe, are now at risk of going hungry.
Thankfully, Covid case numbers are low in Zimbabwe, just over 10,000 cases have been detected, although the real numbers are likely to be far higher as testing is very limited. However, it is the economic and social impact that has really devastated the country.
As well as access to markets, Covid has affected cross-border trade, and it has affected remittances coming in. There’s over 4 million Zimbabweans who live in South Africa and they send money back to their families. It would remind you of Ireland years ago when lots of people emigrated and sent money home. This has had a big effect on people’s ability to cope.
The social impacts of Covid have also been huge here. We saw an increase in violence against women of over 40% during the months of severe lockdown. Children have only just gone back to school after eight months. We’re worried if many young girls will now even go back to school at all, already one in three girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18.
For Angelina and her family, the drought meant that their entire maize crop failed. Angelina is reliant on selling other crops to be able to earn an income to buy maize flour and provide daily meals.
Yet Covid restrictions meant that she couldn’t even get what little produce she had to markets. Usually she would sell her onions and tomatoes to schools, churches and restaurants, all of which had to close during lockdown. Thankfully the rains have finally arrived here, but there will be many hungry lean months before people can harvest anything to eat in March or April of next year.
Angelina and other farmers like her are incredibly resilient, they have survived through many droughts and crises and keep going. Yet this year they are really being pushed to the brink.
In Zimbabwe, we don’t have social welfare safety nets that we find in Europe where the government kicks in with payments for people who have lost their jobs. Without this, it is really important that agencies like Trócaire are here to help people who might be pushed to the edge.
Trócaire is responding to the crisis by providing food assistance and emergency cash support to people like Angelina. Yet we are also in it for the long haul – working on the long term development of communities, helping farmers to grow drought-resistant crops that are environmentally friendly, working to end violence against women, and challenging human rights abuses. It is a long road, but we are walking it together with communities.
Please consider supporting us to continue this critical work. Your donations can help us to take on the devastating impact of the twin pandemics of hunger and Covid and provide hope to people like Angelina.