Food insecurity, health privilege and COVID-19



The coronavirus pandemic has heightened pre-existing food insecurity on a global scale. In Australia, limits have been placed on the purchasing of essential items such as canned goods which resulted in an upsurge of consumer demand. Empty shelves sparked fear in shoppers and created a self-fulfilling prophecy where long-lasting goods were difficult to find.

Hungry people lining up coronavirus on a platter (Chris Johnston)

Thankfully, these temporary shortages have not impacted the health of most Australians and were a result of changes in supply chains rather than shortages of food. Panic buying fears have subsided since the announcement of the first lockdown.

A survey revealed that stockpilers were more likely to be people under financial and personal stress. This could be surmised as a result of low-income earners wishing to avoid an increase in their pre-existing food insecurity. But for many families living pay check to pay check, stocking up on essentials is not feasible, especially for those experiencing a noticeable reduction in income.

While financial stability allows for easier access to essential items and services, it decreases anxiety associated with purchasing cheap food. Canned and long-life foods such as beans, tomatoes and rice are staples for many low-income families who are unable to purchase fresh or pre-cooked meals. The general health of low-income and marginalised communities was lower than that of higher income communities before the pandemic as a result of decreased access to essential resources such as food. 

Australia is equal first for having the lowest rates of undernourishment and are in the top ten countries for food availability and yet a lack of access to food was a source of anxiety for many financially stable Australians. This led me to consider the broader ramifications of COVID-19’s disruption of the food supply chain and pre-existing failures of global food systems.

The global impact of COVID-19 has further increased inequality in food security, with nations already facing widespread famine, malnutrition and food insecurity being hit the hardest. The 2020 Global Nutrition Report was composed before the COVID-19 epidemic but recognises the importance of well-being in the protection of vulnerable populations. It is recognised that due to weaker immune systems, malnourished populations may be at greater risk of experiencing worsened health outcomes and complications associated with the virus than those who are not malnourished.


'Financial privilege fosters a degree of health privilege when it comes to access to appropriate food and healthcare.'


The circumstances in which people ‘grow, live, work, and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness’ shape a population’s health and wellbeing, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Countries with food insecurities pre-dating the pandemic are expected to see heightening mortality rates connected to malnutrition and starvation.

Many food-insecure nations are facing multiple, unprecedented threats to their food access such as war, natural disasters, and locust plagues impeding access to food sources. Since late 2019, a Desert Locust plague has been increasing pre-existing food insecurity for over 20 million people in East-Africa and 15 million in Yemen. Restrictions placed on imports have decreased access to pesticides required to protect crops from insect decimation and has increased the hunger crisis experienced by millions of people in the region. The impact of coronavirus, locusts, and floods have resulted in a loss of livelihood and food production for regions like Northern Kenya where 80 per cent of residents already live below the poverty line. The current Desert Locust plague is said to be the most serious to hit the Horn and East Africa in 70 years and has spread to 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The unprecedented combination of devastating factors which are set to heighten food insecurity threatens to create a large-scale famine leaving millions of people without access to food and placing them at risk of starvation. This has increased the cost of food and placed those in poverty at further risk of malnutrition and starvation. Women-led households are among the hardest hit by food insecurity as they have less mobility and less access to agricultural support services.

Restrictions placed upon imports, transport, and public trading has seen millions of people receive a severe reduction and loss of income and countries who were food secure prior to the pandemic are now experiencing food and economic insecurity.

The UN estimates that an 83 to 132 million people will go hungry this year due to the pandemic in addition to the existing 690 million people currently experiencing hunger. 100 million people are at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty and it is uncertain how many countries (particularly those whose economies rely on agriculture and exports) will fall into a recession, further increasing unemployment rates and food insecurity. The long-term health effects of COVID-19 are unknown, as is the scale of long-term effects on global food security.

The challenges that impede access to appropriate nutrition have been exacerbated by the pandemic due to necessary restrictions imposed by governments to limit the spread of the virus and the subsequent increase in worldwide unemployment. When discussing the health and financial impacts of COVID-19 it is important to recognise the intersection of inequities such as gender, financial and health disparities. Financial privilege fosters a degree of health privilege when it comes to access to appropriate food and healthcare. When the COVID-19 pandemic ceases to be an immediate threat to the global population, the effects on agricultural production and food supply networks will continue to impact millions of people worldwide.



Maddison MooreMaddison Moore is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. She is a Master of Publishing and Communications student at the University of Melbourne.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Maddison Moore, COVID-19, food insecurity, WHO



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Existing comments

Thanks for this stark reminder of the priviledged position of most Australians, and your call for us to be concerned with the impacts of the virus well beyond our own short term circumstances. Let's keep reminding ourselves of this, and let's share the message at Government level too.
Denis Fitzgerald | 01 September 2020

Some years ago I researched food security & supply chains. In Australia food insecurity due to lack of income affected about 3-5% of the population. In indigenous communities, the rate was often triple (15%). Low socioeconomic status was a major factor, as was health, employment & housing. Certain foods & food production inputs are vulnerable to supply chain risks. However the statistics are not regularly collected: there have been major studies & data sets, plus several targeted surveys of specific groups. A concerted effort is needed to consolidate existing reports & articles for review, as well as identifying trends, areas of concern & a strategic plan aimed at addressing current problems, preventing future ones & reducing the risks those less fortunate face in putting nutritious food on the table every day. A whole-of-government federal approach is required, that is responsive to the findings of welfare agencies & attentive to the views of affected groups & communities.
Paul Hutchison | 02 September 2020


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