Science Advances: Increased poverty and food insecurity in low and middle-income countries during the first Covid wave

February 5, 2021

Many people in countries such as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, the Philippines, Nepal, Rwanda and Sierra Leone were hit hard by the first Covid wave and often did not know where their next meal was going to come from.

Development economist Maarten Voors of Wageningen University and Research was part of an international group of researchers that conducted a telephone survey among more than 30,000 people in these low and middle-income countries. They heard how most households’ finances plummeted during the pandemic and that they struggled to find enough food. The research has been published in the authoritative journal Science Advances.

Informal economy

The Covid pandemic and the measures to control it have caused economic decline around the world, but low and middle-income countries have been hit hardest of all. The interviewed households are part of the so-called informal economy which is not reflected in the official figures. These are people who work on farms, in garment factories, in the transport industry or at market stalls. “The fact that we have been able to systematically demonstrate the economic impact of the pandemic in so many countries is quite remarkable,” says Maarten Voors.

Food insecurity

Fifty to eighty per cent of households in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Sierra Leone saw their food security deteriorate, but there were large differences between them. Sierra Leone was hit hardest. Here, 87% of households were forced to skip meals. In Kenya, 48% of households suffered from hunger and in rural Bangladesh this figure was 69%. The income of a large proportion of the respondents plummeted. Out of half the people surveyed, 70% experienced a drop in income.

Other conclusions

The economic slump caused by the lockdown and the resulting food insecurity were not the only effects of Covid; the pandemic has also caused other miseries. For example, schools were closed in all the countries surveyed, while people also had less access to doctors, prenatal care and vaccinations. Social safety nets and support varied from country to country, but these often fell short.

What needs to be done?

Voors says the issues at stake are closer to home than we may think: “Decades of progress in the fight against poverty are at risk of being lost. We need to invest in development aid now. The World Bank estimates that more than 120 million people will fall into poverty as a result of the crisis.”

He is already working on new research into the effects of the Covid pandemic on already socially disadvantaged households in Bangladesh, Kenya and Sierra Leone, households where the man of the house is absent and the income is low. Voors and his colleagues are also monitoring how things are going a year later, deep into the second wave. “The picture we are seeing is of farmers, small business owners and others who are unable to invest due to all the setbacks they experienced last year. They have failed to recover their losses during the second or third wave of the pandemic and are now faced with even more misery. Among others, household violence has clearly increased.”