Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Food insecurity in Tunisia during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

Labour market instability, rising unemployment rates and soaring food prices due to Covid-19 are among the reasons for severe food insecurity across the world. This grim picture is evident in Tunisia, where the government continues to provide financial and food aid to vulnerable households after the pandemic. But as this column explains, the inadequacy of some public policies is another important factors causing food insecurity.

In a nutshell

Low-income and labour income-dependent households are the most vulnerable to shocks induced by Covid-19 – and their food habits have deteriorated considerably; households in Tunisia that received a social transfer did not manage to overcome severe food insecurity.

Food insecurity has increased more in urban areas of the country than in rural areas; indeed, self-produced food by farmers who inhabit rural areas represented a food safety net during the pandemic.

The Tunisian government’s social policies have failed to absorb the harmful effects of Covid-19; this is because social protection is mainly oriented towards retired people and excludes those most vulnerable to economic shocks; the challenge is to extend social protection coverage to households that face transitory poverty.

Food supply has always been a challenge for humanity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2023), the world’s undernourished increased to an average of 868 million people in 2022, about 9.2% of the world’s population compared with 7.9% in 2019. This represents 122 million more people than before the pandemic. But the causes of food insecurity mainly relate to poverty, poor access to basic social services and the inadequacy of certain public policies (Abdullah et al, 2019).

The situation with food security situation has not been favourable for Tunisia. More than 1.5 million Tunisians faced severe or moderate levels of food insecurity, representing 12.6% of the population (FAO, 2022). Rising unemployment and food prices caused by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are among the reasons behind a prevalence of severe food insecurity in Tunisia. Such insecurity was recorded at 3% between 2019 and 2021 (FAO, 2022).

In accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, Tunisian authorities have proposed a series of measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. All of these measures have an impact on the labour market. Looking at comparative figures recorded in February 2020 and November 2021, Krafft et al (2021) found that 82% of the unemployed remained unemployed, 16% of private sector workers lost their jobs and individuals working in the public sector retained the same status.

Loss of employment means loss of income and financial benefits. Due to Covid-19, surveyed Tunisian households experienced income declines of more than half (51%) between February 2020 and February 2021. Because of this drop in income, more than three-quarters of surveyed households reported being unable to purchase the usual quantities of food (Krafft et al, 2021).

What’s more, the inflation rate continued to rise, reaching 10.2% in December 2022 after 9.8% in the previous month (INS, 2022). According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics (INS), the main reason for this increase is the steady increase in the consumer price index (CPI) of food products by about 13% in September 2022, although a large range of basic food products was previously reported as being in limited quantities on the markets in Tunisia.

The main coping strategies for the adverse effects of Covid-19, especially for low-income households, are savings and assistance in the form of direct social transfers in cash and in-kind. Tunisia’s economic and social support measures account for around 2.3% of GDP (IMF, 2021). Moreover, recent studies have shown that these social protection programmes could have produced more positive outcomes for these households, in particular, vulnerable employees who have experienced a deterioration in their income due to mobility restrictions (Ozili, 2020).

To examine the impact of the Covid-19-induced shock on household food insecurity in Tunisia and assess the policy responses in a rapidly changing context, we use micro-data collected from the Combined Covid-19 MENA Monitor Household Survey (CCMMHH) conducted by the ERF. The data were pooled from four waves of Covid-19 covering the periods of November 2020, February 2021, April 2021 and June 2021.

Indicators of food insecurity

Using the CCMMHH ‘Food Security’ survey module, respondents were asked about their experiences of varying degrees of food security during the Covid-19 period. The six potential responses are as follow:

(1) Difficulties in accessing food markets due to government-imposed mobility restrictions/closures.

(2) Unable to buy the quantity of food we usually buy due to food shortages in the markets.

(3) Unable to buy the quantity of food we usually buy because the price of food has increased.

(4) Unable to buy the quantity of food we usually buy because our household income has dropped.

(5) We had to reduce the number of meals and/or the portion of each meal that we usually ate.

(6) No food changes.

Following the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), we construct three categories of food insecurity: mild, moderate and severe food insecurity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Food insecurity levels

Source. Constructed by the author from the CCMMHH survey

Socio-economic characteristics of Tunisian respondents

The pandemic has had a significant impact on income volatility. Compared to pre-Covid-19 in February 2020, almost half (48.7%) of respondents claimed a deterioration in income of 1% to 25% and even a severe decrease of more than 25%.

As a result of this drop in income, the surveyed households reported that they were unable to purchase the usual quantity of food and the spectre of food insecurity haunts them. Indeed, severe food insecurity levels have been exacerbated as about 78.4% of households in question suffered from a severe deterioration in food habits against only 17% who are food secure.

This deterioration in household food security requires social protection programmes as a means of helping them to adapt to the adverse effects of the pandemic. According to the initial distribution of transfers, only 0.4% of individuals benefited from cash transfers and 1.4% of food transfers.

This can be explained by the fact that in Tunisia, the legal framework for social protection is mainly aimed at retired people. This conclusion is consistent with the perceptions of some studies that recommend the extension of social security coverage to those most affected by shocks even if they are not eligible for social assistance (Bodewig et al, 2020).

Deterioration of food security

The effects of Covid-19 on labour market status show significant results. Employees may encounter difficulties in accessing markets and buying food, mainly due to the restrictions and distancing measures imposed and the decrease in purchasing power because they lost their jobs. This was shown by several other studies that have focused on the devastating effects of Covid-19 on employment and income sources (Krafft et al, 2021; ILO, 2020).

 Self-produced food by farmers who inhabit rural areas can act as a safety net during the pandemic. These rural individuals are less likely to be included in the food insecurity basket than urban households. These results show that the effect of Covid-19 was more pronounced for urban households than rural households. This indicates their resilience against food insecurity compared with their urban counterparts (Wenham et al, 2020). This is also explained by the concentration of Covid-19 cases in cities where there are more contacts between people than in rural areas (McGranahan and Dobis, 2021).

The surveyed respondents indicated that their income decreased by more than 25% compared with pre-Covid-19 and that they were more likely to experience severe food insecurity. The results indicate a statistically significant and negative correlation between deterioration of food condition and an increase in income. This implies that poor individuals with monthly incomes below 400 TND are more likely to be affected by Covid-19 and had their eating habits deteriorate significantly.

The impact of social transfers on food insecurity

The marginal effects show that the probabilities of being included in the mild and moderate food insecurity baskets are not significant for individuals who received a social transfer. This finding shows that for the mild or moderate insecurity basket, the social measures taken by the state have helped individuals cope with the crisis.

Furthermore, individuals who received a social transfer (food or monetary) did not manage to stay out of the severe food insecurity basket. Indeed, these individuals have almost the same probability of being included in the food insecurity basket with or without a social transfer.

This indicates that the social policies adopted by the Tunisian government have failed to absorb the adverse effects of Covid-19. The results also show that whether or not they receive a social transfer does not change the food security situation of the individuals in question.

Regional distribution of food insecurity in Tunisia

Given the regional distribution of food insecurity, individuals from rural areas are more secure in terms of food availability than urban areas. Indeed, urban residents are much more likely to report that they are in a severe food insecurity condition (68.5%) and access to food products becomes a major obstacle during the pandemic than rural residents (31.5%). This is because agricultural households that mainly inhabit these rural areas can benefit from self-produced food. Therefore, individuals who practice farming as a job may have better adapted themselves against Covid-19-induced food disruptions.

Conclusion and policy recommendations

Our results show evidence of a deterioration in the food security of wage earners and business owners who depend on working income during the pandemic. This is attributed to loss or reduction of income, reduced access to markets due to mobility restrictions, low purchasing power and the inadequacy of some public policies.

Households with low incomes are more likely to have been affected by Covid-19 and have their eating habits deteriorate significantly.

Households that received a social transfer (cash or food) did not manage to stay out of the severe food insecurity basket. This indicates that the social policies adopted by the Tunisian government failed to absorb the negative effects of Covid-19. In Tunisia, social protection is mainly exclusive to retired people and excludes those most vulnerable to economic shocks.

Self-produced food from farmers who inhabit rural areas may have been a food safety net during the pandemic. This last conclusion is confirmed by regional distribution where we distinguish between the eastern regions, which are the most affected by severe food insecurity, and the western regions, characterised by a labour market based mainly on agriculture that is considered the source of national food production.

From this analysis, several policies are recommended. There is a need to employ adaptation and mitigation strategies based on investing in sustainable food security. This is likely to mitigate the income shock and strengthen the national food system to make it more resilient against future disruptions.

The Tunisian government’s policies to protect against the Covid-19 crisis were inadequate. As a result, there is a need to extend social protection coverage to people who are generally not eligible for social transfers but who were pushed into transitory poverty by the pandemic.

Also, formal measures to target the social safety net more effectively, such as direct cash and food transfers aimed at the most vulnerable, remain essential during expected challenges. These measures would reduce the harm of income losses, restore livelihoods and thus help to support a sustainable and resilient economic recovery. Indeed, among the lessons learned from the pandemic is that we need to ensure that the resources we use to rebuild are sustainable and that the solutions are long-term.

Further reading

Abdullah Zhou, D, T Shah, S Ali, W Ahmad, IU Din and A Ilyas (2019) ‘Factors affecting household food security in rural northern hinterland of Pakistan’, Journal of the Saudi Society of Agricultural Sciences 18(2): 201-10.

Bodewig C, U Gentilini, Z Usman and P Williams (2020) ‘COVID-19 in Africa: How can social safety nets help mitigate the social and economic impacts?’, World Bank.

FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2023) ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023: Urbanization, agrifood systems transformation and healthy diets across the rural–urban continuum’.

FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2022) ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022: Repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable’.

ILO (2020) ‘COVID-19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses’, ILO Monitor (1st Ed.).

IMF (2021) ‘Policy Responses to COVID-19: Policy Tracker’.

INS (2022) ‘Indice des prix à la consommation, Décembre 2022’.

Krafft, C, R Assaad and MA Marouani (2021) ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Middle Eastern and North African Labor Markets: Vulnerable Workers, Small Entrepreneurs and Farmers Bear the Brunt of the Pandemic in Morocco and Tunisia’, ERF Policy Brief No. 55.

McGranahan, D, and EA Dobis (2021) ‘Rural Residents Appear to be More Vulnerable to Serious Infection or Death from Coronavirus COVID-19 ‘Amber Waves: The Economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources, and Rural America, 1490-2021-457.

Ozili, PK (2020) ‘COVID-19 in Africa: Socio-economic impact, policy response and opportunities – Policy Response and Opportunities’.

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