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Coronavirus to plunge 8 million into poverty in Arab world: UN

SHARJAH: An elderly man wearing a protective mask lifts his hands in prayer outside a mosque which has been closed to worshipers amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. – AFP

BEIRUT: The coronavirus pandemic will plunge 8.3 million people in the Arab region into poverty, the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia said on Wednesday. ESCWA also warned that two million people could become undernourished as a result. “With today’s estimates, a total of 101.4 million people in the region would be classified as poor, and 52 million as undernourished,” the UN agency said.

Women and young adults working in the informal sector and who have no access to social welfare are among the most vulnerable, said ESCWA executive secretary Rola Dashti. “Arab Governments must ensure a swift emergency response to protect their people from falling into poverty and food insecurity owing to the impact of COVID-19,” Dashti added. ESCWA last month warned that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out more than 1.7 million jobs across the Arab world this year.

Food crisis
Meanwhile, the heads of three global agencies has warned of a potential worldwide food shortage if authorities fail to manage the ongoing coronavirus crisis properly. Many governments around the world have put their populations on lockdown to slow the spread of the virus but that has resulted in severe slow-downs in international trade and food supply chains. Meanwhile panic buying by people going into isolation has already demonstrated the fragility of supply chains as supermarket shelves emptied in many countries.

“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” said the joint text signed by Qu Dongyu, head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Roberto Azevedo, director of the World Trade Organization (WTO). That is not an idle threat. After the 2007 global financial crisis, rice producing countries India and Vietnam restricted exports to ward off expected price increases. The result: food riots in several developing countries as the price of rice soared.

The warning could be directed at Russia as officials there have mulled restricting wheat exports and have already tapped the nation’s reserves to ensure prices don’t jump. “In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage(s)” from developing, the joint statement said. “When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens, countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt the food supply chain,” it added.

Over the longer term, confinement orders and travel restrictions risk causing disruptions in agricultural production due to the unavailability of agricultural labor and the inability to get food to markets. “Such disruptions including hampering the movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste,” the three leaders noted. Closing borders has exposed just how much certain countries are dependant upon foreign workers to bring in crops.

Just start of crisis
Unless solutions are found quickly the lack of seasonal farm laborers from Mexico puts the production of many crops in the United States at risk. In Western Europe the absence of workers from North Africa and Eastern Europe could produce a similar result. “We are just at the start of this crisis,” said FAO senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian, who judged it to be one more of transport and logistics rather than production. He believes what happens in India, which is under a nationwide lockdown for another two weeks, will be key given the size of its population and role as an exporter. “Harvests are beginning in several weeks, the fluid movement of goods must be assured,” he told AFP in a telephone interview.

The FAO, WHO and WTO leaders also stressed the need to protect employees engaged in food production, processing and distribution, both for their own health and that of others, as well as to maintain food supply chains. Supermarket cashiers are among those who have succumbed to the virus in Italy and France, where some workers have staged walkouts over the lack of measures and equipment to protect them. Upscale Whole Foods Markets in the United States is also facing work stoppages.

The last few years have seen international cooperation wilt, with US President Donald Trump snubbing international agreements and institutions and launching trade wars. But the FAO, WHO and WTO said working together is needed to avoid food shortages brought on by measures to combat the novel coronavirus. “It is at times like these that more, not less, international cooperation is essential,” they said. “We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”- Agencies

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