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The impacts of a global pandemic: Part Seven …the evolution and uncertainties of the pandemic

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THE Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as a provider of impartial and timely information on markets, food security and nutrition, was instrumental in framing food and agriculture-related responses to the pandemic-induced global food crisis through targeted policy proposals as well as a set of concrete emergency and humanitarian response measures under ‘Leave No One Behind’ (‘LNOB’) — a fundamental aspiration in both FAO’s Strategic Framework and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Backed by the full strength of FAO’s Strategic Framework, LNOB linked short and long-term measures together to tie in with the 2030 Agenda and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) jeopardised by the pandemic.

The ‘Strategic Framework 2022-2031’  was developed to address the implications of COVID-19’s multiple global crises and recovery while accelerating progress towards SDGs through agri-food systems transformation, making them more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

To address the multi-socio-economic impacts of the pandemic and global food, energy and finance crises, FAO and its many partners shifted priorities and directed their support to where and when it was needed most, while ensuring full implementation of its Programme of Work and meeting the targets of its Medium-Term Plan and Strategic Framework.

The COVID-19 ‘Response and Recovery Programme’ was designed to proactively address the socio-economic impact of the pandemic in line with the UN’s approach to ‘build back better’ and to achieve the 2030 Agenda, with the aim to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 on livelihoods and the resilience of the agri-food systems, which, according to UNCTAD: “…uncertainty over the evolution of the pandemic and the restrictive measures imposed at the time, also influenced the ability and willingness of investors to invest in the agri-food sector.”

The programme included seven key priority areas, namely economic inclusion; social protection; data for decision-making; trade and food safety standards; boosting smallholder resilience for recovery; preventing the next zoonotic pandemic; and the transformation of food systems.

Interventions ranged from humanitarian action to longer-term development priorities, including focusing on a ‘One Health’ approach; making data available, using data and digital technologies and boosting farmer resilience through innovations to assist smallholders, empower women and link social protection to rural-based livelihoods.

In alignment with the programme, various organisations adjusted their programmes and resources as well as leveraged new funds to meet the Response and Recovery Programme.

‘Humanitarian Response Plans’ (HRP) addressed the impact of COVID-19 and other pre-existing shocks and stresses in an integrated manner, reallocating resources to reach 24 million people in situations of acute food insecurity.

Additionally, the Response Plans increased safety measures at livestock markets, sensitisation activities among food workers, dissemination of risk communication and community engagement materials, contingency planning for pastoralists’ safe transhumance to winter pastures as well as addressed direct and secondary effects of the pandemic.

Based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, quality data and analyses were made available for decision-making through rapid data collection and provided information on the impact of the pandemic in the ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021’.

In addition, data collected in 25 Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries assessed the latest status on food insecurity at national and 

sub-national levels.

Collaborating with external actors for the development of COVID-19-related knowledge and data services contributed to building a shared understanding about the impact of the pandemic and was very effective in disseminating key messages and supporting their uptake.

Co-led by FAO, the UN Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance supported decision-makers in identifying solutions and developing strategies to help countries address the inter-linked crises related to food, energy, finance and health.

In 2019, the Global Health Security index ranked countries according to their preparedness for pandemics. 

The US was identified as the most prepared country, yet recorded amongst the 

highest mortality rates. 

Most African countries were deemed 

to be least capable of dealing with any new health threat, further entrenching the perspective of Africa’s lack of preparedness. Africa, as a continent, was erroneously predicted to have 10 million COVID-19-related deaths.

However, as of November 13, African countries accounted for only 3,6 percent of COVID-19 cases and 3,6 percent deaths worldwide.

Incidentally, while many countries in the Western world failed to immediately implement the known evidence-based interventions, most African countries took the coronavirus issue seriously to protect their populations.

Lockdowns and border closings were implemented soon after the first few cases of COVID-19 were reported.

As early as March 15 2020, African countries closed their borders, cancelled flights and imposed strict lockdown measures to prevent the influx of the coronavirus.

In addition to the implementation of lockdowns, most African countries promptly adopted other evidence-based prevention interventions, such as hand-washing, mask wearing and social distancing to support the strategy of prevention.

On March 27, South Africa implemented one of the strictest lockdowns worldwide which contributed in reducing the rate of infections from 42 to 4 percent.

In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared COVID-19 a national disaster on March 17 2020, saying “…the country had escalated its national response to the virus…” after neighbouring countries in the region had reported positive cases. SI 2022-169 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) (No. 2) (Amendment) Order, 2022 (No. 42) was gazetted on October 7 2022.

Rwanda, exemplary during the crisis, implemented lockdown on March 20, six days after the first case was detected and all non-essential travel within the country was banned.

Thereafter, lockdowns in regions with high incidence rates were prolonged; opened those with lower case rates and closed popular crowded markets and relocated the traders to smaller markets in less populous areas.

Tony Blair in his foreword: ‘A COVID-19 Vaccination Plan for Africa’ wrote: “It seems likely that the worst-case scenarios regarding COVID-19 in Africa, which seemed all too plausible earlier this year, have not come to pass. African governments must continue to be vigilant and remain committed to testing, contact tracing and other measures aimed at suppressing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy running. Africa’s leaders, experts and people should be congratulated on the systems they have put in place, the lives they have saved and the sacrifices they have made.

The next front in the battle against COVID-19 is vaccination. The stakes are high. A successful vaccination programme could reconnect Africa to the rest of the world, while enabling the reorganisation of the continent’s health systems. Falling short could leave the continent in a kind of COVID-limbo, cut off from its markets and customers, with potentially devastating consequences for countries’ economies and development.”

With regard to COVID-19 vaccinations, Blair wrote: “Vaccination programmes need vaccines. … We must recognise that the pandemic has accentuated the unfairness and imbalance in the global system of vaccine manufacture and distribution. Left unaddressed, these may pose a risk to global health resilience in the future. We can only expect more viral pandemics and mobile pathogens in the 21st Century. 

Countries must again work together to detect and eliminate them. Collaboration is much needed. Since Western countries have jumped the queue and pre-ordered stocks, poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa will have no choice but to accept the COVID-19 vaccines they are given, regardless of whether they want them or they have been tested for efficacy among their populations. This is not only unfair, it risks increased vaccine hesitancy among those countries’ populations.

In the medium to long-term, with the real risk of other potential future viral and pathogen outbreaks, Africa needs its own domestic and regional manufacturing capacity rather than relying on reserved doses from foreign producers. That will take time, but the pandemic should provide the spur for progress to be made. COVID-19 was not the first global pandemic, and history tells us it will not be the last. As we grapple with the current crisis, we should not miss the opportunity to prepare for the next one.”

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:linamanucci@gmail.com

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