The importance of assets for coping with COVID-19 and other shocks

  • Tempo de leitura:19 minutos de leitura

Julio Berdegué, María Castillo, Ileana Gómez, Gustavo Gordillo, José Navea, Irvin Rojas e Rodrigo Yáñez in Global Food Security Vol40 | March 2024


  • We studied food security in 10 territories in five Latin American countries.
  • The households have been subjected to successive shocks in recent years.
  • We found different associations with food security in the territories.
  • Asset endowment is associated with changes in food security.
  • Asset endowment is associated with households’ coping strategies.


Rural households in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico experienced a series of shocks beginning in 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, loss of income, an abrupt increase in food prices, hurricanes, a public safety crisis and political instability.
Through household surveys in 10 territories in those countries, along with interviews and focus groups, we studied the association between the context created by those shocks, food security and households’ coping strategies. The main finding is that the relative level of wealth, measured by households’ asset endowment, is the factor that most influences both food insecurity and the strategies households choose for coping with shocks.


“The light at the end of the tunnel was various trains, coming head on.” Those were the words of a Colombian rural leader referring to the series of shocks experienced by communities in a short period of time. This article explores the consequences of these successive food security and nutrition (FSN) crises for the inhabitants of rural and urban territories in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although LAC contains 8.4% of the world’s population, it accounted for 15% of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 28% of confirmed deaths as of early 2022 (PAHO/WHO, 2022). In 2020, regional per-capita GDP fell by 7.7%, the largest annual drop in 120 years of statistical history in the region (ECLAC, 2021). As a result, extreme poverty increased by 23% in 2021 compared to 2019. The increase in rural poverty was greater among women than men, so much so that the incidence of extreme poverty decreased for rural men but increased among rural women between 2019 and 2020 (CEPALStat, 2023a).

The severity of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in LAC is explained in part because it found a population weakened by economic stagnation and the social deterioration experienced in the previous decade. Average annual per-capita economic growth in the region between the crisis of 2007 and the end of 2019 was a mediocre 0.9% in constant dollar prices (CEPALStat, 2023b). The prevalence of undernourishment and poverty have been increasing since 2014 (FAO et al., 2023a2023bCEPALStat, 2023c).

Béné et al. (2021) documented 22 impact pathways of COVID-19 in food systems in 22 countries. The most frequent was loss of a job and/or decrease in income, which led to a degradation of dietary options and diversity. Various authors (Devereux et al., 2020Laborde et al., 2021Swinnen and Vos, 2021) confirm that the most serious threat to food security as a result of the first waves of COVID-19 was the reduced economic capacity to access food. Bundervoet et al. (2022) found that in late 2020, slightly more than one-third of people surveyed in 31 countries were no longer working, and nearly two-thirds reported decreased income; according to Egger et al. (2021), nearly seven out of every 10 households in nine developing countries experienced a drop in income. The increase in food prices since mid-2020 and, more strongly, since October 2021 aggravated economic access to food (FAO et al., 20222023a2023b).

According to Bundervoet et al. (2022), the pandemic’s effects were regressive, disproportionately affecting women, young people, workers with little education and the self-employed. The same authors report that the greatest job loss in low- and middle-income countries occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, where half the people stopped working temporarily or permanently. Other authors also report gender gaps affecting women in the impacts on employment and income, as reported by Mamgain (2021) in India. Households with more children also showed greater impacts on food security (Fang et al., 2022); besides the difficulties that a larger number of family members could imply, these trends could be linked to greater pressure on women to stop working and devote more time to childcare because schools closed (Bundervoet et al., 2022). Meanwhile, Josephson et al. (2021) found that in various countries in Africa, the incidence of food security due to the pandemic was greater among people who were more concerned about the financial threat the pandemic represented.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, severe food insecurity increased from 9.7% to 13.9% between 2019 and 2021, and among women from 10.4% to 15.8% (FAO et al., 2023b). The region’s households also decreased consumption of nutritious foods and increased consumption of canned, packaged and non-perishable products, not only because of their lower cost, but also because they can be stored longer, an important factor when mobility was curtailed (FAO & ECLAC, 2020). In MexicoGaitán-Rossi et al. (2021) found an increase in food insecurity during the first stage of the pandemic, especially in households with children, and with appreciable differences between households at higher and lower socioeconomic levels.1 Various countries in the region faced simultaneous shocks between 2020 and 2022, which had synergistic effects on food security (Lara-Arévalo et al., 2023); in Central America, for example, the COVID-19 shock was aggravated by the arrival in late 2020 of two category 4 hurricanes that affected more than 7 million people (IFRC, 2022). In rural areas of Ceballos et al., (2021) found a loss of income because of reductions in remittances received and in non-farm and farm income, although the latter were affected in fewer households. This led to an increase in food insecurity because of reduced food consumption, especially of the most nutritious foods.

Regarding coping mechanisms, the literature reports, among other behaviors, indebtedness and sale of assets (Ragasa et al., 2021), dissaving (Hirvonen et al., 2021a) and the return of family members from the city to their rural communities of origin (Fort et al., 2021). Some households increased their access to public programs (Ceballos et al., 2021).

Nevertheless, various studies confirm that in many cases, these strategies were not sufficient to compensate the loss of income, and households were forced to reduce food consumption, especially of the costliest foods or those requiring cash income (Ceballos et al., 2021FAO & ECLAC, 2020Hirvonen et al., 2021aHirvonen et al., 2021bLaborde et al., 2021Swinnen and Vos, 2021). The situation of self-employed and/or informal workers, without access to unemployment insurance and other social protection mechanisms characteristic of formal employment, further weakened the resilience of those people and their households, especially in rural areas (Devereux et al., 2020).

In summary, the literature highlights a significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security and nutrition in many countries in the region and globally. The loss of employment and income combined with the rise in food prices, exacerbated food insecurity which had been rising globally in the previous years. In Latin America this was aggravated by the economic slowdown prior to the pandemic. The literature identifies coping strategies, which include debt, sale of assets, return of family members to rural communities, in addition to a decrease in the consumption of nutritious foods and an increase in the preference for processed products. Our study explores some of these global trends in the context of ten large territories in Latin America, and contributes to the literature by exploring the specific factors associated with increases in food insecurity and the response capacity of households.

The project that gave rise to this article began in June 2020. It sought to explore the effects and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security over three years, as the crisis evolved, in 10 territories in five Latin American countries: Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico. What the investigation ended up capturing, however, was a series of different shocks affecting the same populations. Initially (mainly in 2020 and the beginning of 2021, captured in the first survey, which is described below) in the five countries, the second wave of infections began, with between 22 (Guatemala) and 255 (Colombia) COVID-19 cases a day per million inhabitants (Our World in Data, 2023). That year was characterized by a strong deterioration of economic and social indicators, with a contraction of per-capita GDP in all the countries in the study (World Bank, 2021), as well as an increase in food insecurity, poverty and extreme poverty, and a decrease in the employment rate (ECLAC, 2021). In Guatemala, this survey also captured the effect of two strong hurricanes.

In a second moment (captured in the second survey, described below, especially in late 2022), the shocks were different: the number of daily COVID-19 cases and, above all, deaths from the disease had decreased considerably, health restrictions had been lifted, and economic and employment growth rates were recovering. Nevertheless, annual inflation rates increased significantly (ranging from 6.7% in Guatemala to 11.7% in Chile). The increase in food prices was even greater (between 9% annually in Guatemala and 24.6% in Colombia) (IMF, 2023).2 In the second stage, in Ecuador, a major political crisis also occurred, related to a considerable increase in violence and public insecurity.

The research questions are: (1) How have prevalences of food insecurity changed in the various territories after a series of shocks? (2) Is there a common pattern of factors associated with food insecurity? (3) What coping strategies did households use most, and how did they vary among territories? (4) What household characteristics are associated with the selection of the various strategies for coping with shocks in the various territories?

Conclusions and recommendations

We would like to highlight four conclusions:

First, households in 10 territories in five Latin American countries have experienced a series of shocks in a short period of time, hindering their ability to return to pre-pandemic levels of food security (FAO et al., 2023b). Nevertheless, different territories, even within the same country, have responded differently to these shocks. In some, food insecurity has increased with the accumulation of shocks; in others, it has decreased in comparison to the situation in previous shocks; and in others, the situation has remained stable during the study period, although sometimes at high levels of food insecurity. We cannot assume that a series of shocks translates into a cumulative increase in food insecurity. The response to the same or a similar shock is specific to the conditions of the territories and the households in them. This requires thinking about risk-reduction policies that are flexible enough to adapt to these diverse conditions.

Second, different household characteristics are related to the likelihood of falling into different degrees of food insecurity. The household’s asset endowment plays a predominant role, however, and is also manifested in all circumstances included in our study. Far behind asset endowment appear variables such as the household’s ethnic characteristics or gender. Nevertheless, there may be interactions here which we did not explore, because being Indigenous or being a female head of household is strongly correlated with having less access to assets, as well as to the lower productivity of certain assets.

Third, the strategies households use probably allow them to mitigate the present effects of shocks they have experienced, but increase their vulnerability to new shocks in the short or long term. Reducing the nutritional quality of the diet, especially in households with children under age 5, early use of pension funds, selling machinery or animals, and — possibly more surreptitious, but no less harmful — reducing spending on education and health mean bread today, but hunger tomorrow. Surely there is a limit to the number of successive shocks that these households can resist, or the efficacy with which they can do so, when little by little they are exhausting their physical, human and financial capital.

Finally, since the beginning of the pandemic, various actors, including specialized United Nations bodies such as FAO, ECLAC, WFP and the World Bank, called for reinforcing social protection programs to mitigate the impact on employment, income, poverty and food insecurity. This call is correct, of course, but our results suggest that even with wider coverage, these programs are much less effective than households having good asset endowment. The fight to eradicate poverty and extreme poverty, which in Latin America includes the reduction of economic, gender and ethnic inequalities, is ultimately the best policy for reducing vulnerability to shocks that are increasingly frequent and interrelated, such as those experienced by the communities studied as part of this project.

We would also like to highlight two knowledge gaps that can be addressed in future research:

First, what are the conditions that make a territory more or less vulnerable to these shocks in food security levels? Our research has examined household characteristics, but has investigated less the characteristics of the spaces and the societies in which those people live. Is it only the territory’s relative level of wealth or poverty, or is there something more? Having answers to this question is essential if we want (as we suggest in the first conclusion) to design territorially differentiated risk-reduction policies. That cannot be done without at least knowing which variables are most important in defining those differences.

Second, how rapid is the recovery of these households’ food security? On what does it depend that a household in a given territory recovers more fully and more rapidly? Answering this question in relation to the different strategies used by households and with their initial levels of asset endowment is very important for trying to anticipate the degree of suffering that new shocks could cause, especially if they arrive before there has been time for adequate recovery of factors that provide greater resilience. If recovery times are long, the impact of each successive shock will be greater, and proactive and rapid-response policies would have to be more powerful. Ideally, this requires panel studies that follow households in different territories, or at least a sequence of cross-sectional studies.

CRediT authorship contribution statement

Julio A. Berdegué: Formal analysis, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
María J. Castillo: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
Ileana Gómez: Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
Gustavo Gordillo: Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
José Navea: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
Irvin Rojas: Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.
Rodrigo Yáñez: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.

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