Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 beyond the Health Sector

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Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 beyond the Health Sector

it is important to turn to its agricultural sector to mitigate the devastating impact of the virus on the country’s economy.
As the global community is entering the seventh month of the fight against the spread of COVID-19, it is becoming increasingly clear that in addition to the enormous impact on the human health, the virus is taking a considerable toll on the economies and livelihoods, especially in the less developed countries.
With the passage of time, the economic fallout from COVID 19 is threatening to be more devastating on human lives than the virus itself, challenging governments across the world to reinvent the way economies function.
The agricultural sector must play a central role in these revised economic structures in order to ensure livelihoods and food security of their populations.
The Lao PDR is holding an exceptional track record of no deaths from COVID-19 and very low infection rates among the country’s population. However, the country’s economy has been less fortunate and has suffered a considerable blow due to the virus.
A rapid assessment, conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) indicates a significant slowdown of the country’s economy, increased unemployment and poverty and a sharp drop in the demand for agricultural products, leading to greater food insecurity and malnutrition, especially in the rural areas.
These impacts compound the stresses incurred as a result of the droughts, floods, outbreaks of infectious diseases and other natural disasters that have ravaged various areas of the Lao PDR over the past several years.
In May, an FAO assessment to determine these impacts was conducted for the Lao PDR Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in the provinces of Laung Prabang and Savannakhet, as well as in the capital city of Vientiane.
It has found that the COVID-19 outbreak and its containment measures have led to at least 550,000 Lao people losing their jobs both in the country and in the regional job markets. Most of these workers have returned to their villages, causing an additional strain on the food insecurities in their communities.
The return of workers has exacerbated rice and water shortages caused by previous natural disasters. In Luang Prabang alone, 80 per cent of the villages have run out of rice by April 2020.
Additionally, loss of buying power reduced sales of meat by 30 per cent and vegetables by 40 per cent in both provinces as well as the city of Vientiane.
This drop in demand hits especially small-holders who had prepared for annual top-sales during the Lao New-Year period. Even though demand for agricultural products has gone down, the prices for these goods have not responded uniformly.
This can be confirmed in the prices for meat and rice, which have gone up, while prices of vegetables have gone down.
The continuing uncertainties over the duration and spread of COVID-19 have effectively eliminated both short and long-term prospects for the tourism industry, which has been a source of income to thousands of Lao people both in the country and in the neighbouring Thailand.
Moreover, the closure of international borders has severely impeded regional exports and access to agricultural inputs and outputs the Lao PDR has been traditionally sourcing in other countries.
As an old Chinese proverb says, every challenge presents an opportunity. The FAO assessment has identified a wide range of opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis has opened for the agricultural sector of the Lao PDR to become a central force to the country’s future economic growth.
The response to the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s agricultural sector needs to be based on the draft Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS) 2021-2025 and its strategic priority areas (1) institutions and enabling frameworks, (2) agricultural production structures, productivity and income and (3) market linkages and competitiveness).
According to the FAO assessment, in the next 5-6 months, agricultural sector response measures needs to include:
1. Social security mechanisms to support people who became un-employed and fall under the poverty line;
2. A rapid food security/rice distribution system to avoid acute hunger over the next seven months;
3. Scaling up conditional grants to poor women to maintain diverse diets;
4. Distributing rice seeds of varieties resistant to drought/flooding before the planting season (June-July);
5. Securing contracts with foreign buyers of key cash crops;
6. Ensuring timely and reasonable-cost imports of agricultural inputs (seed, fertilizers, chemicals);
7. Repair and improvements of water supply systems in upland communities affected by drought.
Medium-term (2021-2022) responses will need to focus on the development of new food security plans and mechanisms including support for famers to scale up food production, approval and rolling out of the national seed policy, and introduction of information systems for detection of plant and livestock pests and diseases.
Meanwhile, long-term (2021-2025) recovery mechanisms will need to focus on strengthening local research and extension services in order to develop resilient farming systems and a design of a “northern corridor” strategy” to export safe food products to regional markets.

Source: Lao News Agency

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