Food supply chain and Covid-19: lessons from Wuhan, Hubei China.

In dismay, the world’s attention was drawn to Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China where, by 29th February, 2020 the capital city of Hubei province had (according to researchers) 48,557 COVID 19 cases with the disease claiming the lives of 2169.  As dictated by most disaster situation, China government (s) and authorities had to take drastic measures to fight the spread of what had surely turned into a global health contagion.  Pursuit to defeating the pandemic, on 14th of February, 2020, the city of Wuhan released a public notice of a residential community locked down to curb the transmission of the virus.   Besides battling with the disease, the central government and other relevant authorities in Wuhan were tasked with ensuring a city harboring a population of over 10 million had essentials like food during the lock down.  Hence to safeguard food security, strategic measures were taken to create the “coordinated green channels” to ensure an enhanced and uninterrupted food supply chain to the distressed city.   These efficient green channels were nothing more than the coordinated and a combined effect of different actors ensuring continuous and sufficient food supplies therefore avoiding food shortages at any given time.  These integrated decisions between governments, authorities and food suppliers could be emulated as a success story of securing food supplies in a situation like the one precipitated by COVID 19 pandemic.

Lessons emerging from the coordinated green channels therefore included:

  1. Synchronized collaborations: Coordinated synergies between governments, relevant authorities, food chain suppliers and the community not withstanding was key in the success of the food supply chain.  Wuhan and at large Hubei’s green channel was a harmonious connection at all levels and from one end of the food chain to the other.
  2. Release of government reserves: the government released central reserved food items like 2,000 metric tons of meat, 80,000 tons of rice, 80,000 tons of flour, 120,000 tons of edible oil, 29,000 tons of vegetables, 2,900 tons of eggs and 12 million packs of instant noodles.  The government also maintained stocks of up to 30 days for grain, flour and cooking oil.
  3. Enhanced food production: Food producing hubs, some hundreds of miles away, were tasked to more than double their food production capacity. More so of fresh vegetables.  Some provinces were able to deliver 2000tons of fresh vegetables daily.  Villages like Sunjiaji were able to produce fresh vegetable to meet a delivery demand of 60 tons of vegetables every seven hours.
  4. Transportation:- not only did authorities ensure the food supply chain to the province of Hubei remained uninterrupted but also fast tracked transport logistics to and within the province. Deliberate efforts were made to ensure coordinated market supply and make sure delivery services were smooth. Food transporters had permits exempting them from restrictions.
  5. Enhanced food processing: despite staff cut-backs to avoid the spread of the disease, food processing factory workers multi-tasked around the clock to ensure the required outputs of essentials like grains, flour and cooking oils. This included a daily supply for over 10 million of rice, China’s most popular grain. Rice is served with nearly every meal.
  6. Coordinated Storage and distribution: Supplies were received and distributed by supermarket, market and store suppliers who also made home deliveries of orders received. Restaurants were also allowed to make home deliveries.
  7. Enhanced online orders: Because of restrictions, food orders were made online mostly through WeChat application.  Most supply stores, markets and restaurants experienced hiked online orders for food supplies and other items. 
  8. Community groups purchases: These were organized community group purchases in various districts with community workers as contact points.  Diversified residential deliveries were made by community workers in collaboration with organizers of group purchases.  People without permits purchased their supplies through these groups.
  9. Keeping Food Prices Stable: Authorities ensured commodity prices were stable to avoid consumer exploitation. Those found to have hiked prices were fined heftily.
  10. Data driven responses: Response to food security in the devastated city was data-driven. Government and authorities relied on data to manage inventories of demand and supply.

Well the food supply chain was not without challenges, these included:

  1. Labor shortage: Food processing factories and supply markets were the hardest hit with shortage of labor during the lockdown.  Factories had to cut down on staff to reduce transmission risks necessitating workers to multi-task to meet demand.  Supply markets, on the hand, were weighed down by the task of offloading stocks and making resident deliveries from online purchases.  In on single night , workers at times would offloaded up to a ton of produce each while deliveries had sometimes to be made the following day due to an overwhelmed workforce. In most cases almost all company employees became delivery personnel, some opting to use their private vehicles to make food deliveries.
  2. Stockpiling/hoarding: During emergencies people have tendencies to panic especially when circumstances present uncertainties.  Owing to this, purchase of large stocks was experienced through the lockdown. Stockpiling and hoarding is congruent to artificial price hikes due to the stress placed on the supply chain and sometimes wastage due to loss of food. Fortunately for Wuhan, food supply was assured every day and authorities discouraged price hikes at all cost, therefore recording minimal, if any, price changes on food items.

Emergencies, like the one presented by the COVID 19 pandemic are always costly, demanding and subtle in nature.  They will, in most cases than not, outweigh the capacity of governments to respond effectively and in time.  Although, effects of emergencies are unique to every nation, borrowing a leaf from those who have walked the mile may give insight to interventions as well as avoid unanticipated pitfalls.  Certainly, safeguarding a food supply chain, for a population of over 10 million, in the midst of a health pandemic is a lesson worth noting.

By Nancy N. Wangombe

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