Jonathan S. Stewart, Lead Campaigner of Agro Tech Liberia, Speaks out on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC

Jonathan S. Stewart, Lead Campaigner of Agro Tech Liberia, Speaks out on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC

Hunger, the other side of the Coronavirus Pandemic

The globe is currently faced with a perilous and uncontrollable death-causing situation from COVID-19. We have over two million cases and several thousand deaths already with projections of more. Almost two hundred countries have reported cases.  Our great powers are smashed extremely. Nowhere seem safe.  The global economy is feeling greatly the pinch as lockdown is carried out by many nations as a necessity and preventive measure to reduce transmission of the virus. We are experiencing an unprecedented rise in unemployment, economic meltdown, and contraction in household income. This is where we are now. COVID-19 is affecting everything and we are fighting it mainly from the medical front forgetting another major front (hunger). In this article, I expressly pointed out the shocks caused by the pandemic and actions that governments around the world including Liberia have taken to contain the virus. As we fight COVID-19, hunger is another uphill battle that we must prepare for now.

The Shocks

So much is happening to us now. And so much is projected to happen.  Every sector is being affected directly or indirectly causing economic, social, political, and religious shocks.

Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauroin the center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) research paper on the impact of the coronavirus title “Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis: Act Fast and Do Whatever It Takes” described the shocks of the coronavirus as “firstly the medical shocks – where workers who are sick are not producing GDP. They indicated that the second shock is the economic impacts of containment measures- lockdown and stay home policies and regulations followed by their third point they refer to as the expectation shocks-projections of the worst-case scenario and business firms wait and see approach. These in simple terms explain the shocks being experienced at all levels of society.

The stay-home policy is having a far-reaching impact on the various economies. The United States production capacity has been reduced greatly due to this policy. There are discussions of lifting the lock down in certain States of the United States. Many firms and businesses are either closed or relatively active with low productivity and sale/income. There are reports that Ghana intends to or have lifted its lockdown due to its economic impacts. The closing down of international travel routes (airports, road travel between countries) is having a major economic impact mainly on developing economies and countries.

As Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro put it, Keeping workers away from work and consumers away from consumption both reduce economic activity. There is no better way to say this then indicating that an attempt to temper with supply and demand of both labor and goods creates a worst economic situation that becomes unbearable. The GDP of almost all countries in the world have dropped drastically due to the pandemic.

Talking about shocks, there are visible indicators that Liberia is momentously smashed. The revenue generation capacity has received a bloody nose by the virus containment policies and regulations. Revenue from the transport sector is crippled with internal and international travel restrictions. Revenue from goods and services is also not coming forth as the stay-home policy is being enforced. The government and the commerce sector lose millions of dollars dailies as we fight this pandemic.  Tax paying institutions are nonfunctional now as we speak; therefore, the impact is severe for Liberia that finds itself at the bottom of the poverty, human, and business index. Cross border trade has also been hindered.  

Consequently, household income and consumption levels have dropped in recent times. In urban and rural communities, the major portion of the population depends on petty trade and agriculture as livelihood activities. The virus containment polices and fear has halted these activities to some extent. The purchasing power of a greater portion of the population is reduced and hardship is increasing at an overwhelming pace. The impacts of COVID-19 on the social-economic fabric of Liberia are indescribable.

Medical Action  

Leaders around the world are absolutely concern about closing the transmission gap and finding a cure to the disease. Much effort has been exerted on the medical front. Funds are being allocated in trillions of dollars to purchase medical equipment.  Like in Ghana, the government is encouraging and empowering local firms to produce PPEs and other materials needed for this fight. Billions are spent on hospital equipment and facilities in the United States. Research organizations are receiving grants and support to find a cure for the disease. To admit, the world is fighting back strongly at COVID-19. Even though the virus continues to spread across the nations, but tremendous actions are being taken by local and international partners and governments. There are reports of trail treatments being developed in the US, Israel, and the UK. It sounds good and will help in curtailing the stress the world is going through now. With the projections from experts, we need to do more and to work overtime to put a stop to this global nightmare.

Liberia is making some strives in terms of providing medical services to individuals tested positive. The treatment center (14 Military Hospital) is actively involved with saving the lives of our compatriots who have fallen prey to this deadly virus. As of April 21, 2020, seven persons have recovered and eight deaths. Although the death rate is high but they are doing wonderful work to save more lives. I do not have the facts on the total cash government of Liberia has spent on the purchase of medical equipment and supplies of drugs, but I strongly believe that as a country we have spent some good amount of money on the medical front. With the supply of anti-COVID-19 materials coming from WHO, AU, and ECOWAS, I can say the cost on the medical front is at a remarkable level at this moment. Largely, the presidents and many government officials including some private citizens humanitarian action to provide buckets and disinfectants to residents in the affected counties has hugely impacted the fight on the medical front. This has inspired hygienic practices in almost all the communities in the affected areas. Community structures placed buckets at the community’s entrances where people entering or leaving the communities MUST wash their hands. This is suppressing the spread of the virus as far as transmission is a concern. With the recruitment of the six thousand contact tracers by MCC and NPHIL, it is believed that we have the capacity now to do effective contact tracing of infected people in the various communities. Even though the process of recruitment was controversial but personally, I am more concerned about the impact the people being hired will make on the overall process of rescuing our nation from this pandemic. Several local, national and international organizations took to the streets, corners, and trenches creating awareness to the general public on preventive measures. This in many ways helped with public education. Our organization, Agro Tech Liberia was actively engaged with awareness initiatives online and in the communities.

Can we say we are potent enough at this point to withstand the strike of COVID-19? I will say no. we need to be more resilient and build more defenses by strengthening our health sector, take care of our health workers and carry out effective contact tracing (reducing person-to-person contact) as well as rigorous preventive measures.   

Hunger

The other side of COVID-19 is indeed hunger. It kills. It undermines societal growth and national security. Hunger is at this point seemed to be a byproduct of SARS-CoV-2. Global food production has dropped. Major food-producing countries are also highly hit by the pandemic. Asia, a food-producing continent is the origin of the virus. The USA is also heavily affected and is experiencing the highest death rate so far. This makes the other side of COVID-19(hunger) serious. Poor countries must start to look in the green sector now as a place to restore broken economies and feed the hungry people.

 The pre coronavirus hunger index shows that there were over 850 million hungry people in the world. Over 350 million of the hungry population lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, the numbers have gone higher in this coronavirus pandemic where containment strategies and policies are greatly affecting food production and supply activities around the world.

I must commend the global powers for the progress in the combat of SARS-CoV-2 so far but I am here to remind or reveal to our policy drivers the other side of COVID-19 which is hunger. The latest information coming from the Global Report on Food Crises 2020 contains disturbing data on acute food insecurity in the world. The Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) 2020 is the result of a joint, consensus-based assessment of acute food insecurity situations around the world by 16 partner organizations. The report discloses that there are 135 million acutely food-insecure people in need of urgent humanitarian food and nutrition who are the most vulnerable to the consequences of this pandemic as they have very limited or no capacity to cope with either the health or socioeconomic aspects of the shock. The data was collected from 55 countries facing conflict /insecurity, climate change, desert locusts and economic shocks with 10 worst.  Imagine that the data and the analyses in this report were prepared before the global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and did not account for its impact on vulnerable people in food-crisis situations. If it was, it would be more than alarming.

The report also projected that Conflict/insecurity, extreme weather, desert locusts, economic shocks, and COVID-19 are expected to be the key drivers of acute food insecurity in 2020. This is something to be concern about and to facing with the same strength and zest as done with the fight against COVID-19.

The pandemic may well devastate livelihoods and food security, especially in fragile contexts and particularly for the most vulnerable people working in the informal agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. A global recession will majorly disrupt food supply chains, the report noted.  There are 75 million stunted and 17 million acutely malnourished children under 5 years across the 55 food-crisis countries analyzed in the report. With two major global extremists (climate change and COVID-19), we must begin to plan on fighting global hunger especially with the economic destruction being carried out by COVID-19 in all regions.

For Liberia food security, it is in red. It has a 34.9 percent score in the Global Hunger Index in 2019. With a household food shortage of 51.2 percent and food poverty of 39.1 percent, the shock of the coronavirus is a threat to our food and nutrition security. Liberia food consumption is import based where over 60 percent of foods consumed are imported. Rice is Liberia’s staple food. Liberia import 80 percent of the rice consumed annually. Several tons of agriculture produce including pepper, groundnut, and beans are imported from neighboring countries. As of now, production has slowdown in these countries. This is something to look at critically so as to prepare Liberia against food shortage in the very near future.

Couple with low local food production, lack of access to good farm to market road, lack of industrial farming activities and technology, Liberia is vulnerable to food insecurity and needs to develop a short and long term robust food security plan, program and policy that will increase production, create value addition and inspire the use of technology(ICT).

Under short term plans and programs, there is a new to inspire more of urban farming as the lockdown in the urban communities is restricting food movement from the rural-urban supply chain. Residents in urban communities need to access knowledge (agronomic practices) on smart growing techniques and access to the input. In line with this idea, I launched through our youth agriculture and environmental organization, Agro Tech Liberia, a campaign name, “Let Grow Our Food”, being carried out through media platforms intended to inspire back yard cultivation in these emergency times so as to stabilize the rural-urban supply shock caused by the virus containment policies.

This will prevent the anticipated food shortage expected to happen as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, the drivers of the agriculture sector need to identify the farmers producing the essential food crops in Liberia to build their capacity in order to have them produce the adequate quantity that can make a greater impact nationally; and establish market linkages and supply chains that will guarantee farmers optimum sale and profit margin as well as timely deliveries and nutritious quality. Working with cooperatives will do well in increasing production levels and improving livelihood as well. Providing support to farmers, who have proven to be passionate, committed, and with vast experience will inspire growth. Under the emergency food distribution plan and program, it is absolutely necessary to acquire food from local producers. Farmers should be empowered by directly purchasing from them their local produce which will increase their income and investment levels. This will make them expand their agribusinesses and farms- livelihood development.

In the long term plan, there is a need to invest in youth farmers by providing quality and affordable agriculture education that promotes technology (ICT), entrepreneurship as well as startup opportunities. This, in turn, will produce graduates with self-employment spirit and entrepreneurship innovation. The big impact will be a reduction in youth unemployment and an increase in agriculture production.

In Rwanda, the government closely works with youth in their agricultural development program. With the integration of technology (ICT) in their agriculture development program, youth are being developed as agripreneurs and empowered with startup stimulus opportunities. In fact, the Rwanda Youth Agribusiness Forum, a conglomeration of youth-led agriculture businesses and organizations is hosted in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Science. This and many other actions place Rwanda amongst the highest food-producing countries in the East African region.

The government of Liberia through the Ministry of Agriculture should draw a national agriculture road map that shows where it wants to see the agriculture sector over a period of time, outline the national priority crops and animal as well as divide the country into specific food crop-producing regions where targeted people will benefit from empowerment scheme and extension services. Extension service is a major factor as local farmers lack modern techniques, skills, and technology to deal with new varieties, chemicals, extreme climate, and pest situations emerging in the fields. The Lack of access to useful information impedes agriculture growth and undermines national food security.

It is always said that Liberia is rich with an abundance of agriculture resources but we have not been able to maximize the potential of the millions of hectares of arable land, climatic conditions, and water resources.  It is about time we make the Agriculture Ministry the driver of our food system. There must be a change of status for the sector this time around. It is possible. We just have to take agriculture as practical as it should be. Let’s do all we can do to feed ourselves in order to prove our true independence and food self-reliant status.

Jonathan S. Stewart

He is an agriculturalist and program management professional and has over ten years of experience in youth development and agriculture programs. Currently, Jonathan is the Lead Campaigner for Agro Tech Liberia; a youth-based non-governmental agriculture band environmental organization where he seeks to attract youth to agriculture and agribusiness in order to reduce youth unemployment and poverty. He volunteers with several youth development initiatives as a mentor in peacebuilding, agripreneurship, a sustainable environment, and educational activities. Jonathan is a Green Activist who promotes and campaign for a green environment by creating awareness on plastic waste management and climate-smart practices in Liberia. He was nominated in the Green Award in Nigeria and has participated in many agriculture, environmental and climate change initiatives globally. He is a Climate Activist and a trainer for Climate-Smart Agriculture in Liberia.

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