To fight Covid-19, nations should come together

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi

Director General
Monday, May 11, 2020

As the deadly onslaught of Covid-19 is raging, the world has gone into isolation. Travel and movement restrictions have been imposed in many countries. Some have sealed off their borders entirely. Many industries have ground to a halt.

But as disastrous as it is, the global health crisis is drawing our attention to three critical points: the interdependence of nations; the inequalities in society; and the importance of science.

Faced with the realities of the pandemic, governments have to make hard choices. On the one side of the scale is public health and safety and on the other is social and economic fallout from preventative measures.

Pundits are forecasting a post-pandemic new normal. Some suggest two scenarios. In one, the winds of protectionism and nationalism grow stronger. In the other, global cooperation and internationalism accelerate.

But amid nationwide lockdowns and border shutdowns, international trade is already taking a hit. Global supply chains have been disrupted. And concerns are growing about potential food shortages if major producers choose to restrict or ban exports to maintain domestic supplies. Alas, a few countries have opted for some sort of restrictions despite positive outlooks for global food production. If more countries follow suit and trade barriers last longer, we might have a recipe for a global food crisis.

Gains in disease control and prevention should not come at the expense of cross-border trade. The global flow of food and other essential commodities should continue as it is as important to public health and wellbeing as the efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.

While high-income nations are well placed to weather any supply shocks as they have resources to produce or buy food, low-income net food importers are at high risk. In addition to mounting pressure on their healthcare systems, their food systems will come under considerable strain.

More than ever before, the world needs to work as one. We cannot afford a repeat of the global food crisis of 2007-2008.

Just as the pandemic’s impacts will vary across nations, so will its effects on different segments of society. Covid-19 has laid bare the gap between the haves and have-nots across the globe.

The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of vulnerable people from day laborers and migrant workers to smallholder and subsistence farmers are at risk.

Healthcare workers are truly the heroes of the day as they are on the frontlines of the battle against Covid-19. But as experts warn of a looming food crisis, farmers, food producers and suppliers, small and big, are also coming under the spotlight.

Hitherto invisible, a risk to them is viewed as a risk to everyone who depends on the food they produce and supply. The fact that smallholder farmers provide up to 80 percent of the food in Africa and Asia helps to put this into perspective. Without extra support and access to resources and inputs, their agricultural productivity and income will be seriously undermined, and so will food security in their communities.

To them, the disease is as life-threatening as its toll on their livelihoods. More lives might be in peril just because people do not have enough food to eat or money to buy it.

With no work and little to no savings, the consequences of the slightest uptick in prices for staple foods will be catastrophic for people at the bottom of the pyramid. More extreme poverty and hunger might follow.

We can ill-afford to reverse decades of progress in the global fight against poverty and hunger. The developed world should step up to the plate and help low-income countries through the crisis.

The pandemic has also brought science and innovation back up on the agenda. Some countries are pumping billions of dollars into healthcare systems, and corporations are channeling huge funds to medical research.

As much as we need science and innovation for health, we need them for food security and nutrition, especially that of the most vulnerable in society.

Today medical scientists around the world are collaborating to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. But agricultural scientists have been working hard for years to make our food systems immune to various shocks.

This is one reason why the UAE gives priority to research and development in agriculture and food production as part of the National Food Security Strategy 2051. The government supports science and innovation both at home and abroad. As part of official development assistance, the UAE extends scientific know-how to other countries through such organizations as the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Along with other organizations, ICBA has been hard at work to create more diversified and resilient food systems in different countries. The center’s work to support smallholder farmers and rural communities has never been more relevant.

In the face of the past adversities, the world has always been better off united than not. This crisis is no different. Today we have far more to gain from international cooperation in trade, science and innovation than otherwise.