How Has COVID-19 Impacted Tea Production? (1)

The drying of tea leaves inside a tea factory in Sri Lanka. Photo by: chalabala / Bigstock.com.

By John Snell, NMTeaB Consultancy

COVID-19 has been – by any measurement – a harrowing pandemic. It has impacted everyone in the tea industry, some parts more than others. This is a pick of some of the major impacts, but selected because collectively they illustrate that a single event can manifest itself differently, depending on where it lands.

Tea growing and production employs or provides livelihoods for more than 80 million people worldwide, so it was always going to be heavily impacted by the disease and by the measures imposed to control it. In this regard, tea was like any other labor-intensive industry, but suffered a unique and cruel blow based on timing alone.

Timing Is Everything
First reported in December of 2019 (earlier by some accounts), COVID-19 became an international event quickly, with cases in at least 20 countries by the end of January – but it took until March 112020, for the World Health Organization (WHO) to call it a pandemic. This prevarication cost the industry dearly. That’s right, the announcement of the pandemic initiated aggressive containment strategies by governments that coincided with the most important quality harvest periods in several countries.

National Incidences:

China: A Domestic Affair

In China, restrictions on the movement of people had some impact on the spring harvest but not so much because of the inability to farm, as the belief that domestic sales would take a beating. Indeed, this was the case, highlighted by the loss of the lunar New Year trade, when usually three billion trips are made in China over a four week period and gifting, including that of tea, is prevalent.

From an export standpoint, the country fared better. There were delays caused by CIQ and transport related issues, but overall, exports continued their upward trend in value, despite a slight decline in volume (1.65 percent to June).

India: The Epicentre of the COVID-19 Tea Crisis
In India, a national lockdown, prompted by the WHO announcement, coincided with and destroyed the first flush harvests of both Darjeeling and Assam, causing ripples throughout the tea drinking world.

In Darjeeling, where many workers were returning from hospitality jobs all over India, there was fear that they would bring the virus back to the hill country and all work was stopped. The loss of the first flush is particularly devastating for a region which generates approximately 40 percent of it’s annual revenue from this event, as does Nepal and Sikkim.

In Assam too, the first flush was lost but without such a negative effect (the second flush is the “main event” in this most north-easterly of India’s production areas).

Ironically, India had started the year with a carryover of 50 million kgs and was fearing a decrease in pricing – exacerbated by the lockdown – which reduced domestic consumption by 40 million kgs in a month. However, the lockdown also halted production and, by June, North Indian production was 113 million kgs down on the previous year, bringing supply back into alignment with demand.

A Spanner in the Works: Climate Events
This balanced market could have been maintained had typhoon Amphan not ripped through the Bay of Bengal and destroyed millions of kgs of tea in Kolkata, equating to 6 weeks of domestic consumption.

From a country fearful of a huge carry over, India swung to a nation in tea deficit, of over 100 million kgs in a 12 week period. The market reacted decisively.

The monsoon season followed – the strongest in a decade – and the rains flooded Assam, where more than 3,300 villages were inundated causing the evacuation of three million people. In these instances, controlling social distancing, mask wearing and good hygiene is impossible and logically exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 in the region, which has reported more than 800 deaths to date.

 


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