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Omicron-induced lockdown will drive up poverty levels in Lesotho: Report

Herbert Moyo


A NEW lockdown imposed as part of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections fuel led by the new Omicron variant will drive up Lesotho’s already high unemployment rates and consequently worsen food insecurity in the Kingdom. This according to the latest country report on the food security situation by Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS Net).

FEWS NET is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides reports on the food situation in 28 countries including Lesotho.

FEWS NET uses the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system which has different categories for the classification of the food security situation in different countries. Countries in IPC Phase 1 are those with minimal food insecurity while those in IPC Phase 2 are said to be in a “stressed” situation. Those in IPC Phase 3 are in a “crisis” while those in Phase 4 are experiencing a “famine”.

Last month, FEWS NET reported that at least four out of the country’s 10 districts, including Maseru, were already experiencing a “food crisis” due to the depletion of grain from the 2020/21 harvest. The crisis is expected to continue until April 2022 when most households begin harvesting grain from their subsistence farming activities. Until then, most families will be heavily dependent on food aid to prevent outright starvation.

It names Maseru, Mafeteng, Quthing and Qacha’s Nek as the districts which have been worst affected by the depletion of food stocks from the 2020/21 season. The situation is slightly better in other districts as they are in the “stressed” IPC Phase 2 category, the report states. FEWS NET says the current anomalies being experienced in the crisis-hit districts are “the depletion of own-produced foods and the increased reliance on purchased food”.

In its latest report published last week, FEWS NET reiterates that “Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected to persist through the “lean season” (October 2021 to April 2022) in the southern areas of the country and Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are expected for the rest of the country in the coming months”.

The report notes that although food insecurity in Lesotho has generally been fuelled by poor harvests due to climatic conditions and lack of employment opportunities, it has been worsened over the past year by the global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdowns and the resultant bans on cross-border travel between Lesotho and South Africa, which traditionally offers Basotho employment opportunities, has compounded food insecurity, the report states.

Things could get worse if a new lockdown is imposed to deal with the threat posed by the Omicron variant, the report states. “Food insecurity is predominantly driven by prolonged high levels of unemployment in Lesotho and South Africa due to the economic slowdown associated with the Covid-19 pandemic as well as above-average food prices. Another wave of Covid-19 associated with the new (Omicron) variant could lead to new restrictions potentially driving extended and higher levels of unemployment,” FEWS Net states.

The new variant, said to be deadlier and more infectious, was first detected a fortnight ago in South Africa and Botswana. It has triggered a frenzied response by several countries around the world. The likes of the United Kingdom, United States, the European Union have responded by banning flights to and from southern African countries. Although the strain has yet to be detected in Lesotho, the UK government is not taking any chances. In addition to Botswana and South Africa, it has also imposed travel restrictions on Lesotho and all other SADC countries.

The EU, US and several other countries including Rwanda have followed the UK’s lead and also imposed travel restrictions. The travel ban has been sharply criticised in some of the SADC countries including South Africa whose health ministry called them “premature and draconian”.

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