Food insecurity is an increasing concern around the world. Together, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the global recession may be nudging the world closer towards a hunger pandemic [1]. In this context, the pandemic may amplify increased food and economic insecurity, resulting in a change in migration rates and patterns.

What does history teach us about the link between epidemics, migration, and food insecurity? Published in The Journal of Nutrition, Drs. Michael D. Smith (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce) and Dennis Wesselbaum (University of Otago, Department of Economics) provide important insights from the last global pandemic like COVID-19, arguably, the Spanish flu, to better understand key factors in pandemic spread and effective policy measures. These insights may be helpful to policymakers today, even if economies are vastly different 100 years after the Spanish flu.

In the current crisis, disruptions in the food supply chain are generated by 1) producers themselves contracting the virus, 2) policy responses affecting markets, and 3) transport restrictions. Restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the virus (e.g., social distancing, quarantine, restaurant closing, school closures) are particularly challenging for those living in high-density areas where conditions are already unsafe and could become worse due to lockdown measures. Limited access to health services, sanitation facilities, and clean water may impact food storage, processing, and sanitation. As a result, behaviors such as panic buying and hoarding affect food prices and availability. In low-income countries, lockdowns may exacerbate food insecurity, which could further spread the virus. Nevertheless, lockdowns are the lesser of two evils and are a crucial policy tool to combat the virus. Policymakers, however, must consider unintended consequences, such as increasing food insecurity. Migration patterns could also be impacted as people avoid heavily affected COVID-19 destination countries (e.g., United States, Italy, or Spain) and move to other countries.

To reduce the hardship of unemployment and reduced incomes, countries must rely on fiscal policies that target health and support all components of food security. Food assistance programs are essential to increasing food access for low-income households experiencing health or income shock. Supporting food distribution systems is paramount to global and local trade flows, which will require international coordination. Multilateral agreements to limit protectionist measures can limit price spikes and reduce negative impacts on neighboring countries. 

While this crisis has many negative effects, it may also lead to innovative ideas around the food supply chain and re-thinking immigration policies, and improved management of migration flows. Therefore, the need for coordination between international food security and migration policy agendas is critical. In conclusion, there is an expectation that the pandemic will increase food insecurity. This increase in the severity and prevalence of food insecurity will lead to increased migration, although regions heavily affected by COVID-19 might be avoided. This structural break in migration flows could have long-lasting effects.

[1] The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the Department of Commerce.

Reference Smith MD, Wesselbaum D. COVID-19, Food Insecurity, and Migration. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 150, Issue 11, November 2020, Pages 2855–2858,

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