Key Takeaways

Families in developing Asia spend up to half their budgets on food, so food price increases have wide negative impact. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, food prices have risen consistently due to supply chain disruptions, rising shipping costs and bad weather.   The pandemic, inducing higher food prices and reduced incomes, makes the goal of eradicating hunger even more challenging. The UN Agencies estimate of undernourished population in Asia increased from 361.3 million to 418.0 million between 2019 and 2020, increasing the prevalence of undernourishment from 7.9% to 9.0%. South Asia has the most severe impact, accounting for 89% of the increase in the number of undernourished in Asia (FAO 2021).

Increasing cost of living

Domestic food supply chain disruptions and rising shipping costs driven by COVID-19 related restrictions, currency depreciation and export restrictions imposed by some grain exporters have pushed the domestic food price upwards in many economies in the region. The adverse impacts of climate change, catastrophic weather events, and various pest infestations are also contributing to increasing prices of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and other basic food items. The spread of infectious diseases among animals (such as the African swine fever) has also affected food production and further disrupting the food supply chain.

Figure 1 shows the changes in food inflation from 2019 to 2020 of Asia and the Pacific economies in which nearly all economies with available data showed positive food CPI growth. During this period, food inflation increased in 29 of the 41 reporting economies, of which 17 posted food inflation of 5% or higher. The largest increases in food price inflation were observed mostly in lower-middle income economies such as Pakistan (11.3 percentage points), Sri Lanka (10.6 percentage points), the Kyrgyz Republic (10.3 percentage points), and Bhutan (7.8 percentage points). Trends in nonfood price inflation in 2020 were mixed and ranged from as low as –10.3% to as high as 18.6% by economy.

Increasing unemployment and reduced working hours

  In addition to higher food prices, households have also experienced unemployment and loss of work hours during the pandemic. Figure 2 shows the rise of unemployment in 21 of the 23 ADB member economies with available data from 2019 to 2020. Of these, 16 economies saw their unemployment rates climb by at least 10%, while more than one-third saw an increase of 20% or more. The highest increases in unemployment rates were noted in the Philippines (5.2 percentage points); Hong Kong, China (2.9 percentage points); Azerbaijan (2.4 percentage points); Bhutan (2.3 percentage points); and Indonesia (1.8 percentage points). In terms of work hours, overall the region lost an estimated 8% in 2020. Among the subregions, South Asia recorded the highest loss of work hours with 13.6%. This is followed by Central and West Asia with 9.2% and Southeast Asia with 8.4%. The Pacific recorded the smallest change in work hours lost with only 2.4% (ILO 2021; ADB 2021a). Higher unemployment rates and more work hours lost translate into reduced incomes for affected households.

Both high food prices and reduced incomes impact households’ accessibility to healthy and nutritious food and in turn affects prevalence of undernourishment. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, projections on the prevalence of undernourishment indicated that most subregions in Asia and the Pacific show significant progress in reducing undernourishment by 2030 (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO 2020), albeit at a pace of progress that might be slower than what was observed in earlier decades due to impacts of climate change and other factors (ADB 2019b). Economies from East Asia and Central Asia were likely to eliminate undernourishment by 2030, but some South Asian and Southeast Asian economies need to further accelerate their efforts to achieve the 2030 targets (FAO 2020).

Results from an Asian Development Bank Institute survey, as seen in Figure 4, illustrates that   in select economies where the prevalence of food security and undernourishment were already considerable even before COVID-19 struck, significant proportion of the population had to reduce food consumption to cope with financial difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Pandemic exacerbates existing vulnerabilities

The pandemic makes the goal of eradicating hunger even more challenging in several ways, although the full extent of its impact is hard to quantify due to a lack of available data. The pandemic exacerbates the vulnerabilities of people who were already suffering from undernourishment and malnutrition as these increase the chance of getting ill and dying (DIPR 2020). Furthermore, undernourishment of expectant mothers may affect infants’ health while undernourishment of children may also lead to poor learning outcomes.