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This is not a one person, one country, or one continent problem


Agnes Kalibata is the UN’s special envoy for the Food System’s Summit and president of AGRA (Growing Africa’s Agriculture). We interviewed her as as part of our #PassTheMic series.

Here’s some of what she had to say in the interview.

This is probably the first time that mankind has had one common enemy in the last 100 years. It’s not a one person, one country, or one continent problem. It’s a global problem that we have to deal with together.

Coronavirus has demonstrated that irrespective of where you are in the world, there are vulnerable people among us. These people are suffering the brunt of the problems that COVID-19 is causing, so we have a responsibility to protect them.

There are a number of priorities going forward. Of course, being able to protect people and ensuring that we’re reducing the spread is going to be extremely important, both within countries and between countries.

Informal workers

There are also other areas we need to start looking at, like who is impacted the most by this and how can we support them? For example, people who’ve lost their jobs. We are seeing huge numbers of people that aren’t going to be able to cope and their countries are going to have difficulties dealing with that.

Irrespective of whether they get the disease or not, they will suffer because of their economic capability and the ability to feed their children. I have been looking at some of the data here in Kenya and 58% of people in this category already say they’re making hard choices between the number of meals they can have a day.

About 50% of people in Nairobi are informal workers. They are not currently earning any money, so they’re going to have to make difficult choices.

Added to that, 15 million people on the African continent have lost formal jobs.
So, talking from an African perspective, it is a huge challenge.

An agricultural perspective

When you look at this from an agricultural perspective, we need to consider the farmers, whose sole livelihood is how they plant and sell food. Those markets have collapsed or are collapsing, so they are losing their capital base.

Another category of people that we need to think about is small to mid-size enterprises. About 15% have already closed because they can’t afford to survive and a further 7% think they will close businesses in the next month or so.

I know countries are putting some packages in place but, from an African perspective, I’m worried about how long it will last.

There are also a number of risks of not having a global response to this crisis. In Kenya, for example, we’ve had a reduction of chemicals to deal with locusts, because we couldn’t get supplies from Luxembourg. In the meantime, locusts are causing a huge amount of damage.

So the fear is when countries start shutting down or implementing import and export bans. In 2008, when the food crisis happened, there was a 4.8% drop in global supply. Now, with the current lockdown we are already at 4%. That means price hikes are going to be so high that people who’re already struggling with access to food are going to struggle even more.

Another reason why we have to ensure there is a global response, is that financial resources are not equitably distributed in this world. Countries that have, need to support countries that don’t have. I know that is happening but, for me, it’s not happening fast enough.

Forced to shut down

Today I was asking myself, how is it possible that Africa is not experiencing the kind of damage we are seeing in other places, at least some parts of Africa?

It occurred to me that we might have been saved by the fact that coronavirus started spreading in Europe and many other places. We were forced to shut down because of those risks, before it became a major issue for us. If movement had continued, we would probably be in the same place as others.

Maybe our ‘high’ is going to come at a much later stage, but that will be based on how we stop the spreading. I’m optimistic that we’ve survived this far.

The second thing that is making me optimistic is the recognition that we need to deal with this from a management perspective, rather than everyone for themselves.

There’s a lot of attention and good intentions to get things done, but there’s also a lot of campaigning around what would happen if we don’t do the right thing. I would say we’ve been given a learning opportunity that can help us control how this moves forward.

These excerpts from the interview were edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from experts in our #PassTheMic campaign, where global health experts take over celebrities’ social media channels to share the data, facts, and science we need to know to end COVID-19. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more.

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