The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust to the fore the fragile relationship between health and the economy. It has also brought out the relationship between different sectors of the economy and social dynamics that have tended to be ignored or assumed unimportant.
Who, for instance, would have imagined that a health event could shut down global airline travel, let alone bring the tourism industry to its knees almost instantly?
Previously, as all went about savouring the natural beauty of the world, iconic human development milestones and cultures of various global communities, health issues never featured on our minds save for travel insurance.
The last global pandemic with impacts comparable to Covid-19 happened over a century ago. It was the Spanish flu caused by the influenza virus.
The disease visited at a time when the world was embroiled in the First World War and lasted 1918 to 1920. That was an era where people were not as mobile as they are today.
The spread was mainly accelerated by movement of soldiers.
Interestingly, the main methods of managing the Spanish flu are still applicable today with the Covid-19 pandemic but spreading factors and population numbers are very different.
In spite of the presence of highly developed medical care, scientific knowledge and technology and absence of a world war, the current pandemic is still having impacts similar to the Spanish flu one.
In my view, this situation may be attributed to higher global population numbers and density, initial belief in the high level of development and the efficient free movement of people locally and globally for business, leisure and social interactions.
Scientists’ previous triumph over flu viruses, including avian and swine flu and other coronaviruses such as SARS Cov and MERS Cov, may have given premature confidence in our ability to handle viral disease outbreaks with pandemic potential.
The current pandemic has literally given humans a run for their money that it threatens to bring to nought our development over the last 100 years. The virus does not care whether one has money or not or whether one is educated or illiterate.
I was motivated to write this article following numerous calls I received from livestock farmers from different counties.
The pandemic has visited on them challenges they find difficult to solve and which threaten the continuity of their businesses.
It started with farmers complaining they had nowhere to sell their produce. Once eateries were closed, farmers had a big drop in the market for milk and dairy products, meat, eggs and fish.
Ironically, consumers are still intact because the virus has only killed a few people. The problem is that most of the commercial consumers of livestock farm produce are working people mainly in urban areas.
The closure of food service in hotels, restaurants, pubs and other eateries came with loss of jobs and removal of previously guaranteed customers.
One farmer in Naivasha lamented that attempts to sell milk directly to consumers was too expensive to sustain his enterprise.
Since the milk is pasteurised on the farm, it would not be economical for them to sell it to the milk processors. In any case, the quality and sophistication of the farm’s production cannot be maintained by sale of raw milk to processors.
Another farmer from Kirinyaga complained she had no market for her pigs. The main processor who had always bought her baconers had given her a notice that they would no longer buy the pigs because demand for pork products had seriously dropped.
A layer poultry farmer from Thika was unable to sell her eggs. In addition, middlemen were offering highly reduced purchase prices claiming they had to factor in possible losses due to lack of market.
Even before the farmers could settle on the issue of reduced market, the national curfew and later partial lockdown of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi followed.
The impact was a heavy reduction in availability of animal feed raw materials. Farmers who formulated their own feeds on the farm had to revert to buying ready feed from factories. Unfortunately, the factories are also affected by the availability of raw materials and the feed has become expensive.
A big portion of feed raw materials used in Kenya are imported from Uganda and Tanzania and other countries in the eastern and southern African.
Although the borders are still open for movement of essential goods, adjusting to the new reality of intensified inspection and testing of drivers has greatly reduced the efficiency of the supply chain and increased the cost of doing business.
One farmer told me she would just raise the pigs already born, sell them and then close the farm until the situation normalises.
The shortages are not only affecting the feeds and feed inputs. Some farmers have told me they are unable to get medical treatment and some medicines for their animals.
This is understandable because again, most of our medical materials are imported. Further, many suppliers and animal health service providers, have scaled down their operations like many other businesses.
My account is for a few farmers who have voiced their concerns. Kenya being an agricultural country, there are many others with the same predicament.
It, therefore, means the government needs to address these farmers’ situation and work with them, food processors, food distributors and consumers.
Farm input suppliers and service providers should also not be left behind. Such action will ensure continuity of food production, processing and distribution during the pandemic period.
You see, one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic response in developing countries, after healthcare, is access to quality affordable food available in adequate quantities.
It will be particularly important in the event of total lockdown measures, because hungry people are hard to contain.