Maryam, a school janitor in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, says she often skips meals so her three children can eat.
"I cook once a day in the evening. We eat half of it for dinner and leave the rest for the children's lunch the following day," she says. The 38-year-old mother says she doesn't eat lunch herself.
"Instead, I make myself busy with work, and it helps me not to think if I'm hungry," Maryam told RFE/RL. "Also, I make hot tea and put lots of sugar in it. It helps, too. If I ate lunch, we wouldn't have enough food for the kids."
Maryam and her family found themselves living on the brink of poverty when her husband, a freight train worker, lost his job in May.
As the impoverished Central Asian nation struggles with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a significant number of the country's 9.5 million people are forced to eat less, with many skipping meals entirely and some even going hungry, a new survey by the World Bank shows.
According to the Listening To Tajikistan survey, more than 30 percent of the respondents said they have reduced their food consumption in comparison to pre-pandemic times. More than 5 percent said they had to go hungry because they couldn't afford food.
One-third of the respondents to the report -- which surveyed some 1,400 households across Tajikistan -- said they often skip meals due to a shortage of food.
More than 45 percent said food security along with the health of their loved ones has become their main worry since the pandemic began.
The survey has been conducted monthly in each region of Tajikistan since 2015. Its latest findings were released on December 23 in the report: Tajikistan: Economic Slowdown Amid The Pandemic.
"Hunger was a main feature of the current year. During the survey, the respondents said that they don't have enough money to buy the amount of food they need, and therefore they're forced to go hungry," Alisher Rajabov, an economist at the World Bank office in Dushanbe, said during a discussion of the research.
According to the World Bank, at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in May, the "reports of reduced food consumption spiked to 41 percent of the population" in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan officially reported its first coronavirus infection on April 30.
But the remittance-dependent country began to feel the devastating impact of the pandemic much earlier when Russia and Kazakhstan -- the hosts of many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers -- closed their borders in March.
About 25 percent of the families in Tajikistan depend on remittances sent from abroad. A job shortage is one of the key challenges that the landlocked, mountainous country has faced since gaining independence in 1991.
Low wages and food price hikes have added to many Tajiks' plight during the pandemic. The majority of ordinary people -- teachers, blue-collar workers, farmers, and low-level public-sector workers -- say they are spending a larger portion of their income on food this year.
Najmiddin Rahimov works in Dushanbe's Mehrgon Bazaar, where he carries customers' groceries in his cart for a small fee.
Before the pandemic, Rahimov used to make up to 100 somonis (about $9) a day from his job. He says his current daily income is about 30 to 40 somonis ($2.6 to $3.5) as the demand has fallen for his service.
"People buy less food now. They don't need a cart for their shopping anymore. They buy just two bags of groceries nowadays and carry the bags themselves," Rahimov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
"Currently, all of my income goes to buy food. We don't buy new clothes anymore," Rahimov said.
The inability to afford enough food has forced some people to extreme measures.
In some villages, people are reporting the theft of food and coal -- an occurrence the villagers say they had only heard of during the civil war of the 1990s.
The World Food Program said in September 2020 that 47 percent of the people in Tajikistan live on less than $1.33 a day and an estimated 30 percent of the population are malnourished.
Future Could Be Bright
The World Bank experts predict the economic situation in Tajikistan could improve and the economy is likely to start bouncing back next year.
But that depends on several factors, such as the population's access to COVID-19 vaccines and the resumption of remittances from workers abroad and an uptick in foreign trade.
World Bank experts have projected Tajikistan's economic growth at 3.5 percent next year, assuming these conditions are met.
"Growth bounce-back in neighboring countries, especially China and Russia, will help support trade activities, remittances inflows, and foreign investment," the World Bank report predicts.
The report forecasts remittances strengthening once travel restrictions are eased and access to labor markets in host countries is restored.
Domestically, the World Bank highlighted the need to carry out "much-needed structural reforms" and to revive the private sector.
Tajikistan is also plagued by corruption, economic mismanagement, and growing income inequality.
Back in Khujand, when asked about her hopes for the future, Maryam said that any improvement for her family depends on her husband being able to find work.
"But for now, I wish the government would provide money to schools for free meals for children from poor families once a day until things improve," she says.