The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the infectious disease, COVID-19, is a pandemic which has more impact on global economy than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) ever had. With government’s prohibition on large public gatherings such as cancellation of events and expos, cancellation of orders from tourism clients, delay of projects and payments, decrease in sales and low demands, disruptions of supply chain, shortages of raw materials, logistics and equipment, and marketing campaign postponements, people have started self-quarantine and some started working from home.
Due to these actions taken place since March for the sake of minimizing the movement and congregation, and absence of foreign employers as they returned to their own countries, unemployment within the key pillars of the economy such as garment manufacturing, tourism and locally owned SMEs has come to pass. But it does not stop there… According to the survey conducted by EuroCham Myanmar in March 2020, 34% of the organizations and industries claimed that it is difficult for them to predict how long it would take for the organizations to recover from COVID-19 since it also depends on the whole supply chain global business.
Although WHO warned the public to take preventive measures and precautions and stockpiles food and necessities, Myanmar, as a large agricultural country, has showed no concern about the scarcity of food despite the fears over the coronavirus. By the report of Global New Light of Myanmar, Myanmar Rice Federation is said to be making efforts to keep the local rice market stable and maintain local rice sufficiency, in cooperation with traders, rice millers and concerned organizations in regions and states, by monitoring the daily situation in the world and reviewing the possible impacts on the local rice market.
In order for the public to be at ease, the government and some organizations said they have stocked piled rice reserves, and the traders have been selling them at a reasonable and affordable price. Furthermore, as the closures or disruptions of food supply chains in a country are having a devastating impact in other countries, we have to look forward to how it is going to be played out by following the decisions of some governments on suspending the export of certain commodities.
As there is also a volatile dollar exchange rate in the local forex market, exporters have halted rice purchase which caused a slight slump in the domestic market.
“At present, some people are panic-buying food and consumer goods in preparation for the possible negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, some are worrying over a possible price hike in the domestic market in wake of the coronavirus,” said a market observer who did not wish to be named.
In late February the Ministry of Commerce announced that trade between Myanmar and China declined by $209 million between January 23 and February 18, as a result of the virus. And instead of generating $10-$14 million daily, the officials noted that trade between the two countries had fallen to $1-$2 million per day.
A workshop on the Development of a Strategic Plan for the Country’s Supply Chain was held at the Horizon Lake View Hotel in Nay Pyi Taw on May 3, 2020. Dr. Myint Htwe, the Union Minister for Health and Sports, said that managing the supply chain efficiently is important for both the nation and the Ministry. And the workshop would review the current system from a professional standpoint and management perspective in order to support it and designate practical tasks.
The Myanmar Rice Federation has also ensured that there are surpluses of rice stocks to ensure food sufficiency in the country. For the current state of the coronavirus crisis, there is no shortage of food products. Most of the food consumed is produced in the country, which is an agro-based one. So, people should remain calm about the nation’s food supplies.
Despite Myanmar showing any worries regarding food security, it would be best if we could take lessons of how the other countries like Singapore has been taking measures on the food supply chain. With years of contingency planning and recent moves to maintain the key flow of goods from the neighboring country-Malaysia, Singapore helped itself in keeping supplies arriving through pandemic-related disruptions, even though the waves of panic buying has emptied some supermarket shelves of food.
According to Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) statement established the previous year, for an immediate response to the COVID-19, the government accelerated funding for local farms to “grow more and grow faster” over the next six-to-24 months.
Moreover, Sarena Che Omar, a food security researcher with Malaysia’s Khazanah Research Institute, told South China Morning Post that the ‘biggest mistake’ in the past was that people focused on rice, and the availability of rice. The proof of the pudding now for countries like Malaysia – where food supply had remained largely undisrupted – was how the vulnerable were cared for during the period. “Food security is not only about supply. It is also about affordability, it’s about utilisation,.. it’s about choices,” she said.
The World Bank Group has also been working with governments and international partners from Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, India, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and United Nations and national governments to closely monitor domestic food and agricultural supply chains and how the loss of employment and income is impacting people’s ability to buy food.
Additionally, in order to boost food and agricultural sector, with a hope of a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, Myanmar Times reported that the government has received loans of $200 million (277 billion Kyats) from the World Bank and that the loan would be used to overcome the COVID-19 crisis… on the areas where the pandemic is mainly affected, to develop better agricultural production, to provide financial aid for farmers, to improve competitiveness, livestock care, rural nutrition drives, and job creation through the improvement of rural irrigation systems.
Hla Kyaw, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, said during the sitting of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union) on May 26 that the projects funded with the loan would be carried out in 228 townships – 38 in Yangon Region, 31 in Shan State, 29 in Mandalay, over 20 in Bago and Magwe, some more in Tanintharyi, Kayah, Kayin, Nay Pyi Taw, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Kachin.
To avoid food scarcity taking place by any means, the government should prioritize protecting the health of its citizens and their livelihood. It should be able to provide immediate food and shelter to the homeless and to facilitate the supply of goods to them. It is also important to create income generating employment opportunities for those who are unemployed and provided them technical assistance and free loan in installments.
And as it is up to the decisions of the politicians, empowering the institutions and the governance structure that gives voice to farmers, poor people in rural areas, and the hungry in general, wherever they are, is needed.