Shortage of food looms over COVID-19 lockdown

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Millions of Nigerians may be caught between a rock and a hard place, should federal and state authorities shut down the nation in a desperate bid to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

To adequately rein in the pandemic, health officials urge people to stay indoors. It is a move that has witnessed deserted streets in several parts of the world, as governments enforce curfews. Unlike developed countries, however, the Nigerian society is wired differently. A prolonged stay-at-home, for more than half the population, could mean an invitation to starvation.

“Nigeria is not prepared at all for food security during a lockdown,” warned Prof. Kolawole Adebayo. Should there be a lockdown, food would become the new problem added to COVID-19, he said.

A farm extension specialist at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB) and former African Coordinator of the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (CAVA) projects, Adebayo noted: “Variables are many and have all been neglected for too long. When last did we update our strategic food reserves and what was the basis of acquiring the foods stored? Is there a match between population distribution and strategic location of food reserves? Did we consider the security of the food reserves and the road, rail air and water transport necessary to move food around when locating the food reserves? The state of our infrastructure is terrible. Did we take heed and fix them? No!”

Just one month of lockdown will pose a huge challenge to the population, said Dr Richardson Okechukwu, a cassava breeding and production expert at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). He explained that while salary earners might be able to stock up on food (if they get paid), daily earners would face a raw deal.

Prof. Damian Chikwendu is a former coordinator of the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP) Nigeria and Team Lead of Cultivating New Frontier in Agriculture (CNFA). He told The Guardian: “If there is a lockdown, how would farmers get seeds? Breeder seeds and certified seeds come from research institutes and seed companies. Getting all the inputs at the right time would be a problem.”

The regional coordinator of Africa Rice Centre, IITA, Ibadan, Dr Francis Nwilene, faulted the leasing of strategic grain reserve facilities and urged government to build infrastructure for agriculture such as dams, more storage facilities for emergencies like COVID-19 and boost rice production for export, especially now that oil price is crashing.

A former chairman of the Poultry Association of Nigeria in Oyo State, Mr. John Olateru, said the closure of schools was already affecting egg producers because sales had plummeted. He said a lockdown would impact negatively on transportation and distribution of farm produce. He added: “Can Nigeria afford salary bonuses for every salary earner like the United States of America? Can we afford other packages being done by some of the locked down countries?”

This was as Senate President Ahmad Lawan cautioned that unless the Federal Government provided palliatives for poor Nigerians, a total lockdown could stoke problems.

“I’m not seeing anything at the moment targeted at providing some relief. If we lock up Nigeria today, then we will wake up trouble, because the majority of our citizens go to the market everyday before they can get something to eat,” he said, following a meeting between the leadership of the National Assembly and some ministers and heads of government agencies in Abuja on Wednesday.

According to a statement by Special Assistant (Press) to the President of the Senate Ezrel Tabiowo, Lawan said: “So, you lock them up in their houses with a threat of disease and without food…We need to have something, a plan of some sorts, in addition to making sure we don’t lock up the farmers’ market, for example, where people can easily go and buy something, and, of course, pharmacies.

“We need to have some kind of supplies for people. I don’t know how we can achieve this, but we have to be ingenious. This is a time to think deep and wide, to provide for our people, in order for us, at least, to deal with this challenge at the moment.”

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