COVID-19 and Food Security in Chin State: A Chance to Reform the Status Quo 

Thang Deih Tuang and Jeff Williamson highlight ongoing food insecurity in Chin state and a chance for reform during COVID-19.

For many communities in Chin State, the memory of the 2007 famine is a constant. After an infestation of rats consumed the region’s rich bamboo forests, they began decimating crops and food supplies. An estimated 100,000 people were in need of immediate food aid; up to 82 percent of farmland was destroyed, school enrollments halved, and 54 people—mostly children—died.

The events of 2007 were not an anomaly. Chin State is Myanmar’s poorest state, with 75 percent of people living under the poverty line. The high levels of poverty, alongside decades of political and religious persecution, labor shortages and market failures, have contributed to chronic food insecurity. Poor infrastructure means that traveling can be burdensome and expensive, limiting families access to markets to sell their products. Others, however, have limited access to land. Consequently, people must rely on meager incomes to purchase their food. According to a study in 2012, 95 percent of households in Kanpetlet were in debt. Chronic food insecurity has also caused severe issues of malnutrition in Chin State. According to the government data, 40.3 percent of children in state are suffering malnutrition or stunted growth, which is the highest rate of child malnutrition in Myanmar

The long-term health impacts of poor malnutrition and food insecurity are now starkly apparent in Chin State with the onset of COVID-19. Not only are communities more vulnerable to the impact of the disease, but the disease itself is adversely affecting food security and furthering malnutrition by limiting access to markets. Together, these issues – malnutrition, COVID-19 and weak food security—have a vicious, cyclical effect on one another. Just a few months ago, in April, the UN warned that the pandemic may double the malnutrition rate across the globe and lead to a Global Food Crisis. Moreover, a recent report by the United Food and Agriculture (UNFAO) together with UNICEF, WFP,WHO and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) suggests that the nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

The Myanmar government and many non-governmental organizations have tried to tackle – with varying success – issues related to food insecurity through capacity development programs, community engagement, higher education and sustainable agricultural practices. In 2018, the government initiated the Multi-Sectoral National Plan of Action on Nutrition (MS-NPAN) (2018/19-2022/23), which provides MMK 929.7 billion (USD 663.6 million) in funding to reduce malnutrition. The MS-NPAN’s strategy is to provide nutrient-rich food products, diversified diets and safer supply chains. Despite these efforts, food security remains one of Chin State’s greatest challenges. But the COVID-19 pandemic may provide the leverage needed to re-think the government’s strategy and make lasting change in Chin State.

A Dangerous Cycle

Shortly after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Kapteel village in Chin State on 23 March 2020, communities were placed on strict lockdown. Inter-village travel was restricted, and even patients were prohibited from traveling to the nearest town, Tedim, for treatment. This posed serious problems for the villagers in Kapteel, who rely on food from Tedim. In an interview with the Irrawaddy, the village chief voiced his concerns, noting that villagers could face starvation due to the restrictions. He pleaded for the government to send food immediately. Unfortunately, the situation in Kapteel is only one example of how COVID-19 is exacerbating issues of food security in Chin State

People in Chin State are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 because of ongoing food security concerns. The rampant malnutrition in Chin State and the common occurrence of diarrhea, malaria and tuberculosis place people at a higher risk of contracting the disease. Moreover, the conflict between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army (AA) in the southern part of Chin State has forced thousands of Chin civilians into refugee camps, further weakening their food security and health.

Chin State is not prepared for the effect COVID-19 will have on food supplies and thus, the cycle of food insecurity and disease. Currently, many people are using “coping mechanisms,” as they are called in the development circle, to survive. These mechanisms include reliance on neighbors and friends for help and donations. Although this may work when a natural disaster hits a particular area, it simply will not suffice during a global pandemic. Meanwhile, the second source of support for people in Chin State comes from remittances: money sent from people working and living abroad. After the mass out-migrations in Chin State during the 1990s, many families became dependent on remittances. This is because poor soil fertility, water scarcity, limited access to quality seeds and markets, as well as the migration of locals from Chin State have undermined farming efforts and development interventions. Consequently, many villagers are unable to grow their own crops and have to source their food from Kalay Township in the Sagaing Region. But as the pandemic grips the world’s economy, remittances are predicted to fall globally by 20 percent. Myanmar will be particularly hard hit by this drop in remittances. A recent report estimates that several thousand people in Mon State are dependent on the remittances of their family members working abroad or elsewhere in Myanmar. This, the authors of the report argue, could disrupt an already fragile social fabric and increases in “hunger, violence and crime.” It is very likely that Chin State will experience similar outcomes, which will have a negative impact on food security and, in turn, communities’ ability to fend off the pandemic.

This pandemic is raising some major alarms. The Chin community, in general, and Myanmar politicians, in particular, should prioritize food and nutritional security as a key component of their COVID-19 response.

Upending the Cycle 

So far, the government has announced a COVID-19 special relief loan for townships in Chin State that do not have access to the Farmers Development Bank, one of the 29 private banks permitted by the Central Bank of Myanmar. Authorities in Chin State have also distributed rice, oil, salt, beans and onions to 200 households that do not have a regular income. Yet, to upend the cycle of disease and malnutrition, the Myanmar government and local authorities in Chin State need a strategic and comprehensive plan to tackle food insecurity. This should include an emphasis on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s four pillars of food security – availability, access, stability and utilization.

To address the first pillar, the government needs to ensure that food supplies are considered as essential services, and of equal importance to healthcare and banking. The government and aid agencies then need to provide an adequate domestic supply of food without any delay, particularly to hard-to-reach areas in Chin State.

The government should establish a transparent food supply chain so that suppliers cannot take advantage of the lockdown and curfew policies by raising the price of basic necessities. A sharp price increase and change in market prices will disproportionately affect poor family households. At the local level, the Chin State government should implement a policy that provides direct transfers of food stamps or money to address the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

If we do not take into consideration the impact that the pandemic will have on food security in Chin State, and its connection to ongoing malnutrition and disease, then we risk perpetuating the cycle. This will have long lasting impacts on the physical, emotional and socio-economic development of Chin State’s most vulnerable communities, many of whom are already facing food insecurity. Upending the cycle is now more important than ever as the next global crisis—the Global Food Crisis—begins to take shape. We need to view these issues as interconnected; we cannot fight either challenge alone.

(Photo courtesy of Gin Kim Mang)

Thang Deih Tuang is a recipient of an Australia Award Scholarship for a Master of Development Studies degree at Murdoch University, Australia. He is currently a freelance researcher and journalist working in Myanmar with an interest in good governance, freedom of expression, conflict and the peace process

Jeff Williamson is a researcher and communication professional working in Southeast Asia with an interest in natural resource governance, conflict and peace processes.