Across the globe, the entire food supply chain has been disrupted by several preventive restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as lockdowns, remote work, social distancing, etc., exposing its vulnerabilities to shocks and crises [1
]. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has affected people’s lives and habits. Some of these behavioral and attitudinal shifts impacted food shopping [6
], diet [8
], and food safety attitudes [10
], as well as food waste [11
]. Further, the pandemic has amplified pre-existing economic weaknesses and brought new challenges by lowering incomes, as many people lost their jobs, and were faced with rising food prices and restricted food accessibility, which increased the challenge of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [16
]. In addition, the pandemic is revealing inequities between and within countries in terms of food security and economic opportunities. It significantly affects developing countries and fragile groups, deepening existing inequalities [17
]. It has negatively impacted income and consumption, particularly among the poorest, who have lost jobs and have seen food prices rise [18
Furthermore, the pandemic has varied consequences for men and women in various parts of the globe. Recent research has shown that women are disproportionately impacted by health and economic crises in various ways, including food security and nutrition, access to health facilities, services, and economic opportunities, and gender-based violence [19
]. In addition, numerous studies have shown that the COVID-19 epidemic had a more significant impact on women than men [20
]. While fatality rates are higher for men globally, the crisis’s socio-economic effects are particularly severe for women [19
]. Women are more prone than males to work in low-wage, insecure sectors that are especially susceptible during recessions, generating another source of gender inequality [22
]. Globally, women’s personal finances and employment security are weaker than men’s. In addition, women are more likely to be single parents, who will be struck harder by the current economic crisis [29
]. Additionally, school and daycare facility closures have resulted in a tremendous rise in child care needs, disproportionately impacting working mothers [30
Moreover, changes in routine, such as those in quarantine, were indicated to have more significant implications for women since they generally had more responsibility in family food decisions [31
]. In addition, under stressful circumstances, women tend to eat more than males [31
]. In addition, following an emotional eating episode, men were less likely to experience guilt than women [32
]. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic had a more significant impact on female households’ diet diversity than male households [33
]. It has led to significant disturbances in women’s daily routines that may have an unexpected effect on eating habits [35
]. During the pandemic, women in several countries were less likely to continue shopping as usual [36
As seen worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic-related measures in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region have resulted in many lifestyle modifications, including changes in diet and food buying patterns among adults [13
]. Numerous earlier studies underlined that social distancing measures applied across the region to contain the spread of the virus transformed lifestyle behaviors, including eating and food shopping habits, e.g., a surge in stockpiling [39
] and online shopping [40
]. Further, COVID-19 has forced people in the region to re-evaluate their lifestyles, and many have become more conscious about their diet. In order to improve their immune system to combat SARS-CoV-2, health has become a concern for individuals across the region [13
]. During the COVID-19 pandemic, documented unhealthy eating behaviors and food choices included overeating, snacking, substituting main meals for snacks, increasing usage of delivery services, and highly processed food consumption.
Specifically, the pandemic impacted women and men differently in this region and exacerbated existing restrictive societal, religious, and cultural barriers and gender inequalities [42
]. The NENA region has meager female labor force participation (FLFP) levels, the lowest globally, projected at 19.77% in 2019 [43
]. Although gender disparity is a global issue, particular conservative social norms and legislative frameworks exacerbate women’s difficulties in the region [25
]. Hence, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, in 2020, the region has only closed 61.1% of its gender gap, which is the gap between men and women across health, education, politics, and economic opportunities [44
]. Accordingly, the region is the least advanced geographical location regarding women’s equality [44
]. For example, in Tunisia, which is depicted as a pioneer of women’s rights in the region, rural women remain socially and economically marginalized. Although they make up 70% of the Tunisian agricultural workforce, they are paid 50% less than males and have extremely little access to social security. While their employment circumstances were already dreadful, the pandemic has exacerbated their economic and social vulnerability [45
Further, previous crises, such as the Arab Spring, proved disastrous for women’s rights in the region, as individuals took advantage of a crisis to reverse social progress—a trend currently being repeated during COVID-19 [46
]. Accordingly, it is crucial to diagnose the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic affected women and men’s food behaviors in the MENA region differently. However, data about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s diets and food-related behaviors in the NENA region are scarce. Firstly, the academic research on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems and diet has been unevenly distributed across regions, with most studies focusing on Western and Southern Europe, North America, and China [47
]. In contrast, developing countries in general, particularly those in the NENA region, have been neglected. Secondly, most of the existent studies on the impact of the pandemic on food activities in the NENA region focused on the general population [13
] or students [10
], and rarely on women.
Consequently, the purpose of this paper is to examine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s food habits and practices in three North African countries: Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Accordingly, the present paper sought to achieve two major objectives: (1) to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted women’s diets; and (2) to investigate how the pandemic impacted women’s food shopping behaviors in North Africa. We outline the research methodology (Section 2
) before presenting the study findings (Section 3
), then discussing them and drawing the main conclusions (Section 4
2. Materials and Methods
The paper is based on the results of an online survey conducted using the SurveyMonkey platform from 15 September to 5 November 2020. The survey was available in Arabic and French languages. The total number of valid collected responses was 995:343 in Egypt, 340 in Morocco, and 312 in Tunisia. The sample included 511 women: 212, 155, and 144 in each country, respectively.
The survey link was disseminated through social media, particularly Facebook, the most utilized social media in the region [52
]. The research addresses the broad population of adults (>18 years of age) in the surveyed countries. The snowball sampling method was used, and participants were encouraged to share the online survey with their friends and family. We also adopted a nonprobability sample approach, in which survey respondents were selected at random and without regard for any previous characteristic other than age. Furthermore, there was no monetary remuneration for taking part in the study. The study was carried out in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration’s principles, and all methods involving research subjects were approved by the Western Michigan University Human Subjects Institutional Review Board (HSIRB) [53
Twenty-five different types of questions (both multiple-choice and one-option) were included in the questionnaire, separated into three sections (Appendix A
). The first section included ten questions about the respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., education level, gender, revenue, etc.). The second section included thirteen questions on their food buying behavior and diet (e.g., food shopping habits, nutrition activities, food waste, etc.). The third section included two questions on their moods and emotions during the pandemic. Prior to its distribution, the questionnaire underwent a two-phase evaluation. Firstly, to ensure the reliability of the study, an expert panel conducted a quality review of the content’s validity. Secondly, the questionnaire was pretested by 20 respondents in each country to verify the validity and reliability of the survey results.
The survey findings were downloaded from the SurveyMonkey platform into SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) version 25.0. We computed descriptive statistics (means, percentages, and frequencies). The percentages of answers and instances were calculated using multiple responses. Non-parametric tests were utilized since the variables were categorical and ordinal. The Mann–Whitney U test evaluated dichotomous, categorical independent variables. The Mann–Whitney U test allowed evaluating the effects of gender, a dichotomous variable (male/female), on food behaviors during the pandemic, and this resulted central in determining the main findings of the research, while the Kruskal–Wallis test assessed multi-choice replies (e.g., age and income). The Kruskal–Wallis test allowed assessing how the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food behaviors have been moderated by different variables such as age and income. The p-value for statistical significance was fixed at 0.05 for all tests.
4. Discussion and Conclusions
In this paper, we evaluated the effects of COVID-19 on consumers’ food behaviors in three countries of the North Africa sub-region, namely, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, with a specific focus on women. We witnessed a significant change in people’s attitudes and behaviors toward food and health, especially women, as they spent more time at home. Indeed, there have been noticeable changes in the way consumers eat, purchase, and engage with food. The study identified many significant consumer trends that are presently influencing food and health behaviors in the region.
Firstly, people experienced negative feelings, fear, and anxiety due to the pandemic. These unpleasant feelings led to overeating. Gender significantly influenced this behavior, especially in Morocco.
Secondly, the results indicated a shift toward a healthier diet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the gravity of the issue, consumers may have experienced some unanticipated repercussions due to spending more time at home [56
]. Indeed, most participants reported a reduction in their consumption of unhealthy foods such as sweets and fast food throughout the pandemic. In general, individuals in the region have been concerned about their health in order to strengthen their immune systems to combat SARS-CoV-2 [13
]. The change from the pre-COVID-19 state towards healthier diet habits has been positive. However, gender significantly influenced this behavior, especially in Egypt, where women consumed more unhealthy food than men. The three studied countries have experienced rapid socio-economic development with demographic and lifestyle transitions in the past fifty years. Therefore, the prevalence of over-nutrition and associated morbidities grows. According to Seyfert et al. [57
], a “nutrition transition” has occurred in the NENA region where traditional diets based mostly on food rich in fiber, vitamins, and micronutrients, such as grains and legumes, have been replaced by more contemporary, Westernized eating patterns that include more saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods. Coats et al. [58
] pointed out that the NENA area is suffering from a double burden of malnutrition, with a high prevalence of undernutrition and growing rates of overweight and obesity, and resultant diet-related chronic diseases. Meanwhile, several micronutrient deficiencies (e.g., iron, iodine, zinc, calcium, folic acid, and vitamins A and D) continue to be recorded in several countries of the region, especially among susceptible populations, such as children and women [59
]. The incidence of obesity in Egypt, for example, is among the highest in the world [60
]. Indeed, the incidence of obesity among Egyptian adults reached 40% in 2019 [61
]. Female Egyptians are more likely to be obese than males (about 50% compared to 30%, respectively). In Egypt, women are less likely to participate in physical activities than men due to cultural reasons [61
]. Consequently, obesity is responsible for roughly three-quarters of all instances of adult type 2 diabetes in Egypt [60
Thirdly, the pandemic has changed people’s shopping patterns since supermarkets are perceived as dangerous places where people are frightened to contact one other. COVID-19 was associated with fewer shopping visits and higher purchases per trip in the three studied countries. Furthermore, the results indicate a surge of stockpiling and panic buying of non-perishable food items, especially in Tunisia and Morocco. El Bilali et al. [51
] found that 52.65% of participants had stockpiled food when COVID-19 became serious in Morocco. Indeed, there was a rush to supermarkets in Morocco just before the confinement in March 2020, and demand for flour and cereals skyrocketed. Moroccans were concerned about the coronavirus and were hoarding vast quantities. Food prices have soared as a consequence [63
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind in North Africa on the perceptions of the implications of COVID-19 on women’s food-related behaviors, and it lays the groundwork for future research into the pandemic’s gender-differentiated impacts. According to the results of this article, the long-term effects of COVID-19 will most likely vary not only from country to country, based on the socio-economic situation and shock resilience at the time of the outbreak [2
], but also between women and men even within the same country.
Some limitations of the survey method and tool affect sample representativeness. As a result, the sample bias is the primary limitation of this study. The cohort was selected at random and recruited on a purely voluntary basis. The survey was conducted as a self-administered questionnaire by volunteers who were not compensated, and only individuals motivated by a serious interest in the topic participated in the research (cf. self-selection of the sample). Individuals with a high level of education, for example, were over-represented in our sample. Surveys often neglect individuals with a low level of education [64
]. Individuals who are not web-literate, as well as the elderly, poor households, and informal laborers, are also excluded from online surveys, particularly in the NENA area. The abovementioned limitations are typical in computer-assisted web interviewing (CAWI), which is often used in surveys [65
]. Because of this bias, it is challenging to extrapolate the poll results to the whole population in the studied countries. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, online surveys may gather data remotely, which is a significant advantage when social distance is required, and face-to-face interviews are challenging and hazardous.
This and other future studies will serve as a foundation for organizational and governmental readiness for future shocks and pandemic occurrences. Although the current research focused on the pandemic’s immediate and short-term consequences, larger and more representative samples (by including elderly, poor households, informal laborers, etc.) are required in future studies to understand better the virus’s medium- and long-term effects on food behaviors, such as food shopping and sourcing, diet, preparation, and food waste. For that, longitudinal studies are needed to grasp the evolution of the impacts of the pandemic over time and consequently inform the mitigation and recovery policies. Furthermore, future studies might concentrate on each SDG connected to the specifics of the food system, especially SDG 2 “Zero Hunger”, SDG 3 “Good health and wellbeing”, SDG 5 “Gender equality” and SDG 12 “Responsible consumption and production”.