In Nigeria, as the lockdown began to bite, social media users began tweeting on the hashtag #hunger20. For West Africans, as for many people around the world, hunger closely shadowed the outbreak of COVID-19. While death rates in West Africa remain low, the virus is an abstract threat compared to the hunger that can so quickly overwhelm food insecure households. Hunger does not just force people out into the streets and into public transport, it underpins the rhythms, frequencies and intensities of interactions, as my colleagues Ismael Thiam and Aminata Niang observed when they described people in Dakar emerging from overnight confinement hungry and ready to congregate and exchange news over hot ndambe, savoury bean sandwiches (Thiam and Niang, 2020). Understanding this close relationship between eating, sociality and public risk, governments have rolled out food aid programmes, both to offer some basic protection to households that have lost their income and to enforce compliance with norms of social distancing. As in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the distribution of food is beginning to play an important role in generating consent and in symbolically underlining the pastoral nature of epidemic control (David, 2019).
Hunger-20 or lockdown hunger may be a new experience that travels with novel, globally circulating arguments about entitlement and protection, but there is of course nothing unusual about hunger. One of the signal trends of the past five years is an increase in both chronic and acute hunger, linked to global insecurity, humanitarian crisis, and the rolling impacts of fluctuations in the price of food. In West Africa the pandemic is unfolding against the backdrop of a “food crisis of exceptional magnitude” (OECD, 2020), and people with expertise in the region’s history and politics have repeatedly warned that we need to understand COVID-19 locking together with existing vulnerability and to analyse vulnerability as the cumulative effect of concurrent crises (Mbembe, 2020; Bossard, 2020).
The potential impact of COVID-19 on global food security is severe. If food producers fall ill or are unable to work because of restrictions on mobility, the region will face a supply side shock at the same time as demand side is disrupted by the sudden collapse in household spending power. The World Food Programme predicts by the end of 2020 a further 130 million people will experience acute hunger. Some of these will be already very vulnerable people caught up in humanitarian crisis, but many of them will be the newly vulnerable, victims of Hunger-20, people whose capacity to support their families has been dramatically reduced by global restrictions on mobility, people dependent on remittances, and those raising money to eat on a daily basis. In the face of this complex crisis, governments will have to ramp up social protection and keep the commercial chains flowing, trying to make sure that the production and circulation of food is not disrupted (WFP, 2020). This is a complex task in West African cities that depend on a large, informal labour force to source, shift and sell food. The arrival of food aid and truck beds piled high with rice rolling into city neighbourhoods dominates news and social media in West Africa, but it is difficult for governments to strengthen informal networks of provision that remain patchwork and understudied.
For the past three years I have been conducting research in highly food insecure, precarious, multigenerational and emotionally intricate households in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. I have been studying the impact of diagnoses of chronic disease in these households, examining how the presence of diabetes and heart disease remakes eating and exacerbates existing inequalities in access to food. One of the claims I often make to situate this research is that from what I have observed in Dakar, food price crises caused less disruption and contestation around food than the current unfolding “crisis” of diet-related debility. The basic contention here, without dismissing the ingenuity, culinary skill and nutritional knowledge it takes to keep households going through periods of severe disruption to supply, is that while crises of scarcity can be weathered, crises that require the adjustment of eating and changes in the distribution of household goods are more likely to undermine the solidarity of collective eating. These households have had to make poignant choices about where to focus their resources. Living means valuing as Stefan Ecks has written here of how COVID-19 collapses and creates regimes of valuing life, and these “households”, imagined icons of safety and satiety, places where people can be encircled by the state’s benevolent protection are places where poignant, sometimes devastating choices are made about how to divide resources. Even at the best of times, people on the periphery of households eat “outside,” mobilising all kinds of relationships and stratagems. Where the economy and global food system needs mobilities of different kinds to function, at the scale of the city strategies of survival are embedded in face to face encounters and people’s abilities to trace and form connections. From asking for money for food to more ambiguous tactics like xaaraan, showing up at another’s home around meal times and relying on their hospitality to eat, when urban households lock down, or turn in on themselves, hunger engulfs the city.
If food in the pandemic is an everyday practical and moral puzzle, the policies to mitigate Hunger-20 are a bellwether for the politics that will shape our lives as the crisis unfolds. In the UK, after an initial spasm of concern about the impact of consumer behaviour on food supply (Dow, 2020) food began to play its usual role in appeasing, soothing, stimulating and filling time in lockdown. For many of my neighbours in one of the crunchier parts of Bristol, food has always been at the heart of their political visions, and from the very beginning my mutual aid groups were full of speculation about how COVID-19 could usher in a new food system, based on values of sustainable, modest, seasonal and local eating, away from the impersonality of out of town supermarkets, places now marked by the risk of infection. For those privileged enough to get bored in lockdown, some of us used the excess of time to realise in our own lives and our own kitchens these values of solidarity, mutuality and resistance through fermenting, preserving, baking and concocting.
At the same time, the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs began to distribute the first government food parcels to the most vulnerable, with the proviso that “where possible, people should continue to rely on friends, family and wider community support” (DEFRA). An article in the Times described the boxes as “woefully inadequate”, stocked with “food to survive on, not to nourish” (the boxes contain, for example, fig rolls, chocolate breakfast cereal, white sliced bread, potatoes, marrowfat peas, baked beans, and tinned peach slices), and claimed that this bland and uninspiring ration violated the “contract” the government had made with the “sickest one and a half million people in the country”: you stay at home, we will feed you (Russell, 2020). Sensitive to media criticism that the parcels were not nutritionally complete, DEFRA argued that the boxes provided a best possible range of foods that could be swiftly and safely processed given logistical concerns about storage and shipping.
Hunger-20 travels with its own moral economy, one that, for now, demands contractual and reciprocal relationships as the state moves to shield and cocoon vulnerable people. Beyond this phase of lockdown we can already see the contours of a future debate cohering: securitised food or simpler, sovereign eating? Keep the supply chains flowing or rebuild our tastes around what is available? The poorest will have to be protected during an economic recovery, can this only be achieved by surrounding them with an arsenal of global logistics? What role will states play in trying to implement their food policies? The passage through the “minimal biopolitics” (Redfield, 2014) of the ration box might force new and unpredictable forms of social protection to emerge, rooted in novel entitlements and new exclusions. Perhaps food is the place where we tend to see these conflicts over the narrowing and focusing of provision, or at least where we see it first. Who eats the ration? We are going to find out.
Branwyn Poleykett is a Research Fellow at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health and a member of the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Her current research examines how the emergence of chronic disease impacts on household food insecurity and everyday eating in Dakar.
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