Latin America Mobilizing To Deal With Hunger Amid Pandemic

Latin America

BUENOS AIRES/SAO PAULO/MONTEVIDEO – The spread of the coronavirus in Latin America poses an additional challenge for the region that other parts of the world are not confronting: How to feed the 187 million people who don’t have a guaranteed meal on the table?

The quarantines governments throughout the region have decreed due to the pandemic, which are preventing many people from getting a square meal, have spurred social organizations, governments and anonymous citizens to contribute their efforts to guarantee that the most vulnerable sectors of society can get food to eat even as they are continuing to self-isolate with an eye toward limiting the spread of the virus.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that 187 million people live in “moderate or serious food insecurity” in Latin America, a situation understood to include the partial or total interruption in access to food, while 140 million depend on informal labor to feed themselves, according to the International Labor Organization.

With millions of people presently out of work due to the pandemic and the concomitant shutdown of economic activity, there are more and more people “who are having difficulties … getting access to food,” something that is especially worrisome “if this lasts for a month or two,” Julio Berdegue, the FAO deputy general director and the representative of that organization for Latin America and the Caribbean, told EFE.

“In the medium term, clearly there’s going to be a problem, and thus it’s crucially important that our countries can have access to international financing. If this lasts for two or three months, there’s going to be a very complicated situation, and it’s very difficult for middle-income countries to be able to fight such a big impact alone,” he said.

Berdegue said that for now Latin American governments have provided “a rather strong response” in this regard, with the opening of assorted credit lines for vulnerable families.

One example of this is in Brazil, where the government announced a package of economic measures including subsidies for informal workers, although it is encountering difficulties to ensure they can get that help, since some are not on any official registry and don’t even have bank accounts.

The aid is especially directed toward those who are living in “favelas,” Brazil’s huge shantytowns with their precarious infrastructure and high population density. Some 6 percent of Brazilians live in such neighborhoods and most of them work in the informal economy and depend almost exclusively on being able to move around within the cities.

In that regard, a joint study conducted by Data Favela and the Instituto Locomotivo found that 86 percent of favela residents will go hungry if they have to remain at home for a month without working, thus complying with the isolation measures implemented by the majority of Brazil’s states.

“Here there’s also an interest in poverty-stricken families having access to food, at least on a basic level, because if not then asking them to remain in their homes is going to be very difficult,” Berdegue said.

In any case, up to now Latin American governments “have done things rather well,” the FAO official said, regarding the “population’s food security,” given that “there are no cases where a country is saying the food has run out or is beginning to be lacking.”

“(You have) to keep the food distribution systems alive, ensure that there are no failures in the logistics, that the supply chains don’t break, that the ports don’t close, that harvests are made. That the wholesale markets, the supermarkets and the stores are operating,” Berdegue said.

To ensure that this is the case, the Argentine government, which decreed obligatory self-isolation on March 20, has mobilized the armed forces to help with food distribution in a country that ended 2019 with a poverty rate of 35.5 percent and an indigence rate of 8 percent.

In fact, one of the main aims of Argentine President Alberto Fernandez at the start of his term on Dec. 10, 2019, was precisely to end hunger, a struggle that has intensified with the start of the pandemic in that country a month ago.

Thus, as soon as the quarantine took effect, the army began distributing food in the Buenos Aires municipality of Quilmes, and from there it expanded its activities to other vulnerable areas in the capital’s urban ring, including La Matanza, where more than two million people live.

“We don’t choose the zones, rather the Social Development Ministry does in agreement with the municipalities … In some places, we prepare and distribute (food), in others we just distribute it,” Argentine Defense Minister Agustin Rossi told EFE.

In La Matanza, for example, the army last Tuesday deployed troops at seven distribution sites and passed out up to 24,000 meals or food rations, while on its first day in Quilmes it distributed a ton of food.

“If we were to get into the dilemma of defending a life or defending economic activity, we’d decide to defend life … We’re aspiring to do better in the face of the pandemic,” he said.

Beyond the concrete actions of governments, civil society is also stepping up. In Uruguay, for example, efforts have intensified in residential areas, where groups are joining together with the objective of preparing large quantities of cooked food for people and then distributing it free of charge.

In the town of Colon, on the outskirts of Montevideo, a food distribution site each afternoon serves 400-500 plates of food to local residents.

Luis Quijano, one of those in charge of overseeing the food inventory and the people who receive their daily rations, told EFE that this is evidence of “what’s happening in the world,” with people opting to lend a hand rather than “standing around waiting for the government to help.”

And the private sector is also getting involved, with John Alemole, the owner of a vegan restaurant helping people living on the streets by preparing soups rich in protein.

“We’re making (the soup) with yeast to also strengthen the immunological system of people who are in a vulnerable situation,” he said.

Berdegue emphasized the importance of joining “science, cooperation and solidarity” to mitigate as much as possible the pandemic’s effects, a task that will require coordination among governments in the region.

“I think that this is obligating everyone to cooperate on levels where we didn’t have to do so (before). I’m sure that the region will have to be able to help those countries with greater poverty levels and less economic capacity, if things keep going on like this,” the FAO official said.

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