On the list of the most urgent COVID-19 priorities, right after saving the lives of those infected comes feeding the rest of us. A mix of logistics, impromptu trade barriers and economics make these efforts a major challenge. And the longer the crisis continues, and the farther it spreads, the stakes of the food supply chain go well beyond keeping your favorite brands stocked in supermarkets. In some places, it can also be a matter of life or death.

Blocking imports: In Goa, one of the richest states in India, famous among tourists for its picturesque beach resorts, finding food has become dangerously hard since a nationwide shutdown began two weeks ago. French daily Le Monde reports that the local governor has shut off any incoming food supply trucks, and stocks have been rapidly vanishing. Locals report that the population of northern Goa has almost nothing left to eat.

A farmer in Uttar Pradesh during India's nationwide lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic.Photo: Prabhat Kumar Verma

Blocking exports: The world's eighth-largest producer of wheat, Kazakhstan, has banned flour exports and imposed restrictions on selling vegetables and buckwheat abroad. Serbia has banned vegetable oil export. Vietnam, the world's third-largest rice exporter, has a ban on new rice export contracts. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization fears such protectionist measures could provoke global food market instability, raise prices and leave populations at risk of hunger.

Blocking labor: There is also the question of how the goods are actually produced, right down to the local farmers. Italian magazine Internazionale reports on as many as 370,000 seasonal workers — mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland – who are blocked from entering Italy because of closed borders. "We're a sign of what's to come, because we're already harvesting," notes one farmer. "Today, workers are missing for asparagus harvest, but tomorrow they'll be missing in apple orchards, for planting season and for all the other crops. It's going to get really get bad."

All of this raises questions that will be posed even after the national quarantines are lifted. Since the beginning of the pandemic, politicians have been reassuring the public that any empty shelves in grocery stores were caused by bottlenecks in the supply chain and stores should be able to replenish quickly. But this short-term emptying is proof of a deeper fragility of our current "just-in-time" consumption system based solely on efficiency, writes The Atlantic. We can add "how we feed ourselves" to the growing list of questions about the ways that life will (or won't) change in the post-coronavirus world.


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