COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The ...

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized ...

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

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As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses and lockdowns continue, even more people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition due to their inability to access nutritious food. The pandemic has revealed the importance not only of alleviating immediate hunger produced by the sudden loss of movement and restrictions to economic activity, but also the longer-term effects of a lack of nutrition arising from the inability to access or pay for nutritious food during the pandemic. Children are particularly vulnerable: the lack of an adequate diet can lead to persistent losses in health, education and productivity that can have lasting effects. The after-effects of the pandemic could be more severe than its immediate effects, writes Jimena Pacheco.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the COVID-19 crisis will expose 265 million people to the threat of severe hunger. The effects of the increase of hunger worldwide could be more catastrophic than the virus itself on the long run. Hence, it is of the utmost importance to implement policies that fight the pandemic from a holistic and intertemporal perspective, including the challenges presented by the accompanying hunger crisis.

According to the IMF, the global economy will suffer a downturn of -3% in 2020, pushing 200 million people out of employment.[1] In addition, millions of self-employed and informal workers will suffer from the abrupt interruption of their income flows brought about by illness or measures to curb virus transmission, including total lockdowns that prevent the normal circulation of people, goods, and services. In addition to the contraction of household income, the prices of cereals and other foodstuffs have increased as a result of trade barriers and difficulties transporting goods due to the lockdowns. As a consequence, we observe a deterioration in the nutrient intake of the population.[2]

Both the quantity and quality of calories are affected. The disruption in food markets has decreased access to vegetables, fruits, and proteins. These food products are labour intensive and need good storage and good distribution logistics, all of which have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to supply shortages[3], the mobility restrictions and volatility of the price of quality food products, as well as sudden income cuts, have pushed households to consume more perishable, cheaper, and less nutritious foods.[4]

But not only the direct effects of interrupted distribution chains are visible in the nutrient intake patterns of the poorest populations. The most vulnerable populations usually live in resource-poor countries with weak fiscal finances, tight health budgets, and high debts. The coronavirus crisis has led these countries to reallocate resources to fight the pandemic, leading to the neglect or interruption of state-driven food programs. Children who were able to receive a square meal at schools can no longer do so, and food- and cash-transfer programs have also been interrupted. The WFP estimates that the school closures and mobility restrictions have prevented 368 million children from receiving meals through school food programs worldwide—a devastating observation. While some countries have ensured that children remain fed, there are no data available on the coverage and quality of those alternative solutions.[5]

Poor childhood nutrition has lasting effects

It is not only the immediate hunger caused by the COVID-19 crisis that is worrisome. The insufficient intake of nutrients during childhood increases vulnerability to infectious diseases, and starvation leads to premature death. Those children who survive are likely to face the lifelong impacts of malnutrition. Malnutrition during childhood generates changes in an individual’s metabolism to save energy. Furthermore, women who have suffered starvation during childhood are shorter and have a higher probability of giving birth to babies with a low birth weight. Besides, children who did not have sufficient nutrients during childhood perform worse in school and are less productive as adults. All these mechanisms that are being fed by coronavirus responses will generate long-term impacts that are likely to persist for more than one generation if we do not counteract the ‘COVID hunger’ now.

The way forward: immediate action and long-term monitoring

The need for timely and adequate policies to prevent hunger and starvation is pressing. Bodies such as the FAO and WFP have suggested a number of measures that can be implemented to combat immediate hunger and a longer-term lack of adequate nutrition linked to economic losses and poverty. These include:

  • Installing emergency cash transfers that smooth the income shocks of the vulnerable households
  • Assuring the correct functioning of food markets by decreasing barriers for food trade
  • Improving dietary quality, among others, by assuring the access to vegetables, fruits, and meat at affordable prices in local markets, or increasing the quantity and quality of school meals
  • Supporting maternal services by strengthening public health services, especially regarding the access to nutrition supplements
  • Promoting homestead food production.

However, the implementation of these recommendations does not seem feasible in countries that are resource strapped and already fail to invest in quality nutrition, healthcare, and food-producing agriculture.[6] We need commitment from governments and international organizations to allocate enough resources to fight hunger today in order to avoid future costs for society. Furthermore, we have to assure that the response to the ‘COVID-19 hunger’ and the monitoring of its effects persist long after the pandemic has ended.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Natascha Wagner for her thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

[1] Also see—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf
[2] The situation is especially difficult in urban areas, where households are unable to smooth the consumption shock through household-level food production.
[3] There are even more channels that contribute to rising hunger and lack of food supplies—the pandemic stopped the movement of migrant workers involved in harvesting activities, resulting in a loss of production for many farmers because of a lack of workers to pick vegetables.
[4] Nutritious food can be 10 times more expensive than basic calories as a result of COVID-19.
[5] For example, in Madrid, the municipality controversially signed a contract with a fast-food provider to cover the meals for vulnerable children. Health institutions and families have raised complaints about the nutritional quality of these meals that the children received for almost two months. See [in Spanish].
[6] World Bank data show that on average around 7% of a country’s GDP is dedicated to healthcare. For OECD countries it reaches 10%, while it is under 5% in Latin America and Southeast Asia. In the least-developed countries, the expenditure in healthcare is as low as 1% of a country’s GDP. See
Title Image Credit: Jimena Pacheco

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Jimena PachecoAbout the authors:

Jimena Pacheco is a development economics Ph.D. candidate at the ISS. Her research interests rely in development, health and education economics. Currently, she is working in the impact of negative shocks -economic and natural crisis- in human capital formation in Ecuador and Spain as main cases.


COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

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Freelance food delivery workers have largely had to make their own decisions about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are they? How has their work been affected, and how have ...

COVID-19 | How Kerala’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting inadequate responses elsewhere in India by Sreerekha Sathi

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The Indian state of Kerala seems to have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well, limiting the amount of virus-related infections and deaths through its assertive approach. Kerala’s outlier position in ...

COVID-19 | Revaluing essential workers by Karin Astrid Siegmann

This year we are celebrating Labour Day in a very different way—the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective and individual responses to it. As economies are shut down, many people are for the first time realizing that essential workers keep the cogs of societies oiled and turning. Yet many essential workers remain underpaid and underappreciated. We should realize that these workers are nurturers and deserve living dignified lives that can only be achieved if our economic system is critically examined and transformed.

A new hero has emerged in the wake of measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus: the essential worker. A global crisis like the one we are facing now raises our awareness about how essential care and food are for human flourishing. The underlying logic is very simple: essential workers are life-making rather than product- or profit-making. Care and food workers therefore top the list of occupations whose work is critical to the COVID-19 response that many governments have published.

Amidst collective clapping for nurses and radio spots praising the role of domestic workers for containing the coronavirus, it is easy to forget that today’s essential workers were the precariat of the old normal. Around the world, care and food workers find themselves at the bottom rung of wage and social hierarchies. In Pakistan, for instance, earning the minimum wage remains a distant dream for the vast informal workforce in agriculture and domestic service. For female workers, this income poverty is aggravated by a wide gender wage gap. Female community health workers called ‘Lady Health Workers’ have been recognised as key to the improvement in maternal and child health indicators in rural Pakistan since the 1990s. Yet, for many years, these vital medical professionals were paid ‘stipends’ at half the minimum wage and not offered regular contracts like other public employees.

This pattern is not much different in a rich country like the Netherlands where I live. Here, the majority of farmworkers are migrants from Central and Eastern Europe on zero-hour contracts. Their hard work in horticulture has turned agricultural export income in the Netherlands into the world’s second highest. Yet, their employment contracts provide neither work nor income security for themselves. Many domestic workers who raise their Dutch employers’ children and care for elderly persons are undocumented migrants whose precarious legal status prevents them from realising the few rights to social protection that they are entitled to. The status of their work is the tail lamp of common classifications of occupational prestige. Only sex workers fare worse in terms of social stigma, while their work satisfies the human ‘skin hunger’ that has turned into a veritable famine in the context of corona-preventing quarantine.

Thus, while symbolic and literal applause for essential workers reveal a level of cognisance of their importance, in fact, the coronavirus crisis even aggravates these workers’ precarity. More often than not, the additional workload for medical personnel and domestic workers to provide quality emergency care to infected persons and prevent further spread of the pandemic through cleanliness and hygiene is not balanced with overtime work compensation. Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers have even seen cuts in their anyway meagre compensation.

In addition, many migrant domestic and sex workers have lost their jobs, but their legal status and/or their occupation’s stigma imply that they are not entitled to government relief packages. Migrant food workers face a cruel choice between infection at work, in crammed transport or accommodation quarters where social distancing is impossible, or the loss of their job and livelihood. Leyva del Río and Medappa hit the nail on the head when concluding that: “The ‘heroes’ of this crisis, those who are sustaining our lives, are barely able to sustain theirs.”

While many observers now demand a revaluation of essential work in a new, post-corona ‘normal’[1], the examples above demonstrate that this is unlikely to be an automatic consequence of the new symbolic recognition of the importance of food and care for our wellbeing. In contrast, they flag that the ongoing crisis is likely to further erode life-sustaining activities. How can this revaluation be achieved, then?

Historically, higher wages, better social protection and more recognition have resulted from workers’ collective struggles. Falling through the cracks of government support in rich and poor countries alike, that’s what today’s essential workers are doing, too. In the Netherlands, for instance, organised migrant domestic workers and sex workers have set up emergency funds, called on clients to continue to support them for as long as the crisis continues, and demanded social security independent of immigration and employment status from the Dutch government.

Given the commonality of their concerns, if networked, these struggles have huge potential to shape a post-corona future that provides essential workers with the recognition they deserve. The call to listen to and take on board essential workers’ own insights in reforms towards greater labour justice and more nurturing societies is the shared starting point of many food and care workers’ organisations. They typically agree that the intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, sexuality and immigration status that condition the precarity of their work and lives need to be addressed head-on in moves towards greater rights and respect. Last but not least, a choir of diverse, yet, united essential workers’ voices is more likely to add volume to their demand for recognition, decent working conditions and inclusive social protection for all workers – and evoke positive public responses.

These suggestions are not some unworldly utopia, but reflect existing, encouraging practices. A few years back, I asked a Mexican domestic worker from Texas why she had travelled all the way to Ohio to join the rally of an organisation demanding justice for Florida’s migrant farmworkers. Her answer was: “They support our struggles, we support theirs.” The demand to value people over profit unites them.

These are some starting points for how the ongoing coronavirus crisis can teach our societies whose work matters most for nurturing humans. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

I am grateful to Thierry Schaffauser, STRASS for his thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.
[1] It is encouraging to witness that a diverse group of colleagues formulates and shares similar ideas (e.g. Ebata et al. 2020, Jaffe 2020, Koebe et al. 2020, Leyva del Río and Medappa 2020, Mezzadri 2020). The ideas outlined here are also in line with and specify the demands of broader visions for sustainable post-Corona scenarios (see e.g. , and ).

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

photo-KarinSiegmann-fromISSwebsiteAbout the author:

Karin Astrid Siegmann is a senior lecturer in gender & labour economics at ISS.