Climate Change and Food Insecurity in a time of Pandemic

April 21,  2020 —   In the weeks since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, various media outlets have highlighted positive environmental stories, noting that the closure of factories in China, diminished tourism in Europe, and the cancellation of international flights worldwide was lowering pollution levels, meanwhile stay-at-home orders seemed to be opening up urban landscapes to wildlife. In Central America, Costa Rica indeed reported an improvement in air quality due to the economic shutdown.


However, the overall picture may not be nearly as rosy. Unlike air quality, climate change will not stop with a few weeks of economic paralysis. In some places, people are already living with the threat of climate change and the pandemic in tandem. In mid-April, a cyclone lashed several island nations in the Pacific, causing dozens of deaths and leaving hundreds without homes during the quarantine.  


In the Caribbean, where hurricane season is just around the corner, the combination of climate volatility and coronavirus could be deadly. Experts warn that ocean warming, as a consequence of climate change, can cause cycles of increasingly devastating tropical storms. In Puerto Rico, families destabilized two years ago by Hurricane Maria and by a series of earthquakes in 2019 are still living in vulnerable conditions lacking basic hygiene and medical attention. Florida is also sounding the alarm about hurricane season, where immigrant farm workers are likely to be caught in the cross-hairs. The United States should be taking actions now to avoid potential disaster as hurricane season ramps up. 


In countries like El Salvador, which is already experiencing climate-related impacts and displacement due to its location in the Central American dry corridor, the stay-at-home order has coincided with a historic heat wave in the San Salvador metropolitan area. This same area has experienced rapid deforestation in recent years due to a construction boom, resulting in serious threats to the water supply. Maintaining access to clean running water in vulnerable areas in the context of the pandemic has quite literally become a matter of life and death. At the same time, Mexico City and the large metropolitan area of the Valley of México are also experiencing a heat wave, made worse by high levels of air pollution despite the measures aimed at limiting social contact. 


Food Insecurity and Malnutrition

Food insecurity is also on the rise as economies remain paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports from El Salvador and the United States describe crop loss and spoilage of milk and other products because farmers and ranchers are unable to get their products to consumers. It is a horrible irony to see producers losing or destroying their crops because they are unable to distribute them while many families who are out of work are going hungry. In northern Central America, school closures add to the risk of malnutrition for students in public schools. In Honduras, there have been reports of protests by people who have run out of food during the quarantine. This situation is only likely to get worse. Thinking to the future: if agricultural producers are unable to grow basic grain crops essential to Central American diets during the upcoming rainy season, these countries could face a major disruption to their food systems. There is a real risk of serious malnutrition and loss of life in Central America. We should keep a particularly close eye on countries such as Guatemala, where even before the pandemic there was an alarming level of child malnutrition due to climate change. Food insecurity has been a driving factor of the exodus of people from northern Central America. The extraordinary economic measures that countries are taking to respond to the pandemic crisis should be reoriented to take into account the urgent need to adapt to the already dire climate change reality, so we can avoid an outcome where even more people have to flee the region in order to survive.

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