This article is part of our Local Week series, a collection of articles focusing on the challenges facing communities as they confront the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find the other articles in the series on our Local Week page.
There is a lot of wartime imagery around. The battle against COVID-19. The war against the pandemic. The fight of our lifetimes.
But the metaphor is wrong. The ask is: how can we organise ourselves – each to do what we can – to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities? And how can the big systems help – whether that is with healthcare, food, or money?
Susan Stewart wrote: “All the little lies follow the big lie, while the big lie is pared away.” The extent of the impact of COVID-19 on everything in our lives is still, consistently, denied by leaders. They, and the public, are still waking up to the public health, economic, and social crisis in which we find ourselves.
But the little lies that follow – that our global agricultural system is fine and that we don’t need to worry about food – are starting to fall away.
Food companies and farmers’ groups have written an open letter to world leaders because transport disruptions, labour shortages, and export restrictions have already impacted food security “in many locations and food prices in some.”
The next wave is a full-fledged hunger crisis, and we’re not ready. In the UK, 1.5 million people have already gone without food for a day. In the United States, lines at food banks go on for miles. The Philippines is experiencing a “full-blown food crisis” while its President turns a blind eye.
Let’s stop reacting to what’s in our rear-view mirror and start getting ahead of this crisis. While the world may face genuine supply shortages if farmers are not able to plant and harvest as normal, for the moment the challenge is about distribution. After all, as Amartya Sen taught us, “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough to eat.”
Here’s what government, big civil society, the private sector, and communities should do to make sure people and their families keep food on their tables. This article will soon be joined by a second that will explore how to keep global supply chains flowing.
Governments have one task: ensure everyone gets food. They should work from three principles:
1. They cannot do it all. As much as possible should be done as locally as possible.
2. Data privacy and protection are paramount. Everything must be ethical by design.
3. Mistakes will be made and that’s okay. Let’s start now (after accepting principles 1 and 2).
The next step is to conduct a basic needs census – through massive and nationwide calls of every phone number. This could be done by local, regional, or national government. This should be managed by the most local level of government that has the capacity to deliver.
Mobile and fixed line telephone companies should provide infrastructure and technical support. Robo-call software can do some of the work, but this might be an opportunity to give work to large numbers of young people and put some money into their pockets and communities.
Civil society fundraisers and political campaigners have relevant skills, especially in the United States. They have used patch-through calling to reach millions of people. The same techniques can now be used to save lives. The Warren campaign, for example, has recently made its tools open-source.
Calls could be simply: “Do you need healthcare? Are you hungry? Do you have access to food?” Independent regulators will need to ensure information is managed ethically, perhaps in a data trust, and with robust, independent oversight over storage and usage. Languages and inclusion matter: people with disabilities and minorities have the greatest needs.
The Food Industry
Food is bought and sold in different ways in different countries. To simplify, think about Big Shops and Small Shops (which we come to below).
Big Shops must demonstrate that they are maximising the throughput of food, not profits for shareholders. And governments should threaten emergency powers if they will not. Currently, there are obvious inefficiencies as people stand in long lines or battle for slots for scarce deliveries.
In many countries, the largest out-of-town supermarkets would do a better job if they radically re-tooled their operating model. Shops should be closed to the public, allowing the stores to operate as warehouses. Car parks could be converted into highly efficient drive-through operations, allowing large numbers of people to pick up food at an appointed time.
Why not ask for help from the people who know how to rapidly load thousands of cars onto ferries?
This system will be safer for staff and customers and will allow deliveries to be reserved for the people who need them most. Government could help corporations scale up while putting money into the pockets that need it most, by slashing taxes to zero for frontline retail workers.
Supermarkets can also use their supply chains to help food banks function – doing more than donate a derisory amount of out-of-date food. And supermarket loyalty card and membership programmes are another huge resource. Costco alone has 100 million members. Why not set up a scheme where a group of ten members can pay for groceries to be picked up by or delivered to a household that needs it?
The bottom line is that we need to re-imagine the role of Big Food in getting us our food, and be willing to re-think the way that these assets – grocery stores, delivery capabilities, etc. – can be used.
Big Civil Society
Red Cross, Oxfam, and the other big civil society networks must step up, as should faith groups, political parties, trade unions, student associations, and other mass membership organisations.
The first challenge is for the leadership of Big Civil Society. Do they accept that government is unable to fix this problem on its own? And if so, what do they do with this knowledge? Use it as an opportunity for negative campaigning? Or do they take responsibility for making sure people get fed?
At present, we rely on the geographic isolation of emergencies. While the rest of the world is secure, we move supplies and resources to where they are needed. This is also how most domestic crisis management systems work. The pandemic is not like that. The need is everywhere, and we will soon need a massive, global response, reaching everywhere, at the same time – in rich and poor countries alike.
If big charities stop competing, they have the intellectual and human resources to design such an airlift, and to provide government and civil society with opportunities to support it. For now, at least, stimulus money is flowing freely. This is an opportunity to get it to the people who need it most.
Globally, regionally, and nationally, civil society needs to act now to get strategies and plans in place. They should divide up areas of responsibility, develop common protocols, and provide a simple escalation function, pooling expertise across regions to meet community need. They can also set standards and rapidly build capacity. Formal charities need to roll out training, PPE, and safeguarding, and to monitor effectiveness, so they know which areas are doing well and which need new resources.
They need to see their role as providing both a global-to-local and national-to-local “backbone” that will allow community mobilisation and the sinews that link the muscle of local efforts to the skeleton that only government and the private sector can provide.
This, in part, echoes the letter sent by humanitarian leaders calling for investment in an emergency global supply chain. But we believe that this response needs to be community-centred – both because it is the right thing to do and because, in a limited mobility environment with constant global need, the community is the only option.
With communities, start by asking where the food is.
Small shops are a hugely underestimated source of local resilience. They know their customers, carry considerable stock, and are beginning to deliver to their local communities. Governments should ask this sector to appoint an envoy to represent its needs and ensure it can still get stock at a reasonable cost if prices spike.
Every shop should have the right to access a home delivery service at minimal cost, either owned and run by a local co-operative, or provided by courier and taxi companies who are now underemployed.
And make small shopkeepers a priority for testing. Advise them on shields and personal protective equipment that can keep them safe. And cut their taxes too if there’s any sign they are struggling under current conditions.
We see the same with restaurants. Rather than just pouring money into businesses, we need to repurpose restaurants into community kitchens. Jose Andres has shown how this is possible and vital.
Arthritic seniors can struggle to cook. People who have lost a loved one – which is hundreds of new people every day – will struggle to feed themselves; so will some people with disabilities, and also people who simply are emotionally and intellectually exhausted.
Many countries have built up a network of food banks – an indictment of the failure to stimulate a broad recovery from previous crises. Food banks are working hard to enable last-mile and volunteer-based delivery of food. But volunteers can only go so far. This is where Big Charity needs to provide open-source systems and experts to support the last mile, and resources to make sure it is bridged in time to stave off a food crisis.
Time to Organise
To manage this crisis, we need to look ahead – keep our eyes on the road, not look back at what has already gone wrong. Outside of elections, the time to apportion blame is when the emergency has stabilised.
In normal times, governments allow Big Food to manage food through its supply chain. Charities chip in on the margins. Small food growers and retailers struggle to stay alive.
These are not normal times. Central government needs to find smart ways to:
1. Work closely with governors, mayors, and other local political leaders.
2. Encourage local government to build its own network of community leaders. Immigrant organisations, mosques and churches, and identity groups will know who is hungry and why there are cracks.
3. Bring in the expertise need to understand what is happening to food prices and supply chains, and to fundamentally redesign logistics.
You could call it a Task Force – we’d call it a people-centred, community driven, and nationally resourced response to the growing risk of breakdown in our food systems.
There is a role for global co-operation too. In 2003, Brazil launched Fome Zero, an ambitious but practical programme that rescued a third of Brazil’s population from hunger. The world now has a zero hunger Sustainable Development Goal.
Does COVID-19 allow us to abandon such grand goals? Or can countries coalesce around an action plan that keeps people fed in the heat of this crisis and then helps them achieve genuine good security over the rest of this decade?