The pandemic makes everything more complicated: David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Program, speaks about help for the poorest in times of social distance.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) faces major challenges due to border closures and travel restrictions. David Beasley, the former South Carolina governor, has led the WFP for three years. SZ met him for the interview, not personally, but from a distance via video chat – not only because travel is impossible, but also because Beasley is recovering from COVID-19.
TEH: How are you?
David Beasley: Thank you, I’m fine.
Usually, this question is part of small talk, but in your case it is relevant. How did the illness go with you?
I had tested negative twice in the two weeks before. So I thought it was an allergy. South Carolina in the southern United States has a lot of pollen in March. Then I got a slight fever, and since I travel a lot and get in touch with people, I really wanted to be tested again, and indeed – the test was positive. Interestingly, I wasn’t feeling really bad, I was sick with a fever and sore throat. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to the hospital.
How does the pandemic affect the work of the WFP?
Before COVID-19, we helped about 100 million people in 83 countries. The pandemic makes everything more complicated, for example, because airlines hardly fly anymore. We are currently chartering and leasing more planes to transport supplies and medical personnel. Many countries have closed their borders, we are concerned about that.
Do you see this critically?
It is not up to us to decide, but when governments make such decisions, we ask them to minimize the impact of a lockdown. Farmers must still be able to put their food on the market, so people must not starve.
Why are lockdowns and closed borders a problem?
First, when a port or distribution point is closed, we can no longer transport food and, secondly, it no longer reaches the people who urgently need it. This breaks the supply chain in some countries with already weak health systems. This, in turn, makes people more susceptible to the disease itself, because malnutrition weakens the immune system.
Which regions are you particularly concerned about?
A lot of problems come together in East Africa and the Sahel, but war zones in Yemen or Syria and countries plagued by economic crises such as Zimbabwe are also particularly vulnerable. If the number of cases in all these locations increases as dramatically as in more developed countries like the United States or Italy, then we expect the worst there.
Why are these countries so vulnerable?
The situation is changing from hour to hour in every country. For example, there is an enormous security problem in Burkina Faso in the Sahel region due to terrorism; there are now around 800,000 internally displaced people. Agriculture is suffering from climate change. Thousands of schools were closed before the pandemic, and now more students have to stay at home.
Why is it so dangerous?
The good news is that children are probably the least vulnerable to the virus itself. However, 370 million children were dependent on school meals that they can no longer get. We have to make sure that the school meal program is not canceled without replacement – for example by distributing the food to the children at other key points.
Isn’t it problematic when people gather in one place?
Right, that’s why our teams try to reduce the risk. In refugee camps, it is particularly difficult to do social distancing. Their people now come over several days so that there are not too many at the distribution points at once. This way they can keep more distance from each other in the snakes. We are now also providing more hand disinfectants.
Are you ready for situations like the coronaPrepared for crisis?
We are used to working in war zones, we did our job during the Ebola epidemic, so we know how to deal with complex situations. But we have never experienced anything like this before. 97 percent of our people are still working. They risk their lives to save lives. We still have to learn how the pandemic develops, what works and what doesn’t. We are of course dependent on the donors so that we can do our job. Nobody should take food security for granted, because without it there can be neither stability nor peace. Hunger also causes migration. A mother who cannot feed her child will go wherever she can. When the United Nations Security Council recognized this in a resolution in 2018, it was an important wake-up call to politicians around the world. Fortunately, Germany is very helpful and pragmatic.
East Africa is fighting with a massive plague of locusts, one hears little about that.
This problem has completely disappeared from the radar due to the pandemic, which threatens a hunger crisis. The grasshoppers were a problem weeks ago, now the second generation has hatched. The swarms are spreading in Somalia, Ethiopia or South Sudan, where food insecurity is already great.
What do these countries face?
The grasshoppers destroy a breathtaking amount of arable land every day. If farmers lose their crops, there is a shortage of food and the supply chain is interrupted. Not to mention that farmers and their families have to fear for their existence. That alone would be an enormous challenge, but at the same time, these countries also have to contain the virus.