In a pre-dawn raid in food-starved Zimbabwe, police enforcing a coronavirus lockdown confiscated and destroyed 3 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables by setting fire to it. Wielding batons, they scattered a group of rural farmers who had traveled overnight, breaking restrictions on movement to bring the precious produce to one of the country’s busiest markets.
The food burned as the farmers went home empty-handed, a stupefying moment for a country and a continent where food is in critically short supply.
It was an extreme example of how lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus may be choking Africa’s already-vulnerable food supply.
Lockdowns in at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries have blocked farmers from getting food to markets and threatened deliveries of food assistance to rural populations. Many informal markets where millions buy their food are shut.
About one in every five people in Africa, nearly 250 million, already didn’t have enough food before the virus outbreak, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. A quarter of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished.
“This is double any other region,” said Sean Granville-Ross, director for Africa at the aid agency Mercy Corps. “With lockdowns, border closures and the ability to access food curtailed, the impact of COVID-19 on Africa could be like nothing we have seen before.”
Lockdowns without provisions to help the poor “may affect us very, very much,” said Lola Castro, regional director in southern Africa for the U.N. World Food Program.
The Kibera slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is at a breaking point already. Last week, thousands of desperate people scrambled for food aid at a distribution point, causing a stampede.
The World Food Program was already feeding millions in Africa, mainly rural people, due to a myriad of disasters: Floods, drought. armed conflict, government failures, even plagues of locusts. The pandemic has added another layer of hardship.
Take Sudan, where restrictions to combat the virus are hampering aid workers from reaching some of the 9.2 million people in need, according to the U.N.
The most severe drought in decades is already threatening about 45 million people with hunger across southern Africa, where farmers are still recovering from two devastating cyclones that battered Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi last year.
Somalia, one of the world’s most fragile countries, is struggling to get food to people living in extremist-controlled areas. Two months ago it declared a national emergency over an outbreak of desert locusts that devoured tens of thousands of hectares of crops and pastures. That left 20 million people with dire food shortages in East Africa. Now the locusts are back, more of them this time.
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In West Africa’s Sahel region, nearly 30 million are struggling to find food, said Granville-Ross of Mercy Corps.
On top of these problems, the World Bank said the virus could create “a severe food security crisis in Africa.”
Among those at risk are millions of children normally fed through WFP’s school meals program. A few weeks after the virus crept into Africa, so many schools have been closed that 65 million children are now missing out on meals, WFP told The Associated Press.
For many Africans, the immediate concern is not the virus — it’s surviving the lockdowns.
“Most Africans work in the informal sector and need to go out every day,” World Health Organization Africa regional chief Matshidiso Moeti said. “I think above all of access to food.”
The virus has been slow to spread in Africa, which has not yet experienced the drastic number of cases and deaths witnessed in parts of Europe, Asia, and the United States. The continent of nearly 1.3 billion people has reported just over 15,000 cases and 815 deaths, although those figures may be vastly under-reported.
But while direct casualties are still relatively low, the “large majority” of economies at risk from the pandemic are in Africa, according to WFP.
“For many poor countries, the economic consequences will be more devastating than the disease itself,” said WFP. British charity Oxfam warned that if Africa doesn’t get help, the fight against poverty could be set back “by as much as 30 years.”
Ordinary Africans can’t expect much help from their governments, many of which are already laboring with huge debts and low foreign currency reserves. Falling global oil and mineral prices mean that Africa’s exports are worth less now.
Some are making drastic decisions.
In a street in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, Eugene Wadema trudges along, searching for transport to get back to her rural home 300 kilometers (186 miles) away.
In the days before the lockdown, food prices shot up at a rate many Zimbabweans, already hammered by a ruined economy and the world’s second-highest inflation rate, just couldn’t handle.
“Here, the price of a pack of potatoes is now $40. It was $15 yesterday,” the 23-year-old Wadema said. She said her rural homeland is one of the lucky ones still receiving food aid but she doesn’t know how long it will last.
Behind her, her husband holds a small child. Two other young children — 5-year-old twins — try to keep up as they carry bags with clothes and blankets. But there’s no food for the journey.
“If we had food we wouldn’t be going,” Wadema said.