The World Food Programme facing Covid-19

Interview with Geneviève Wills, WFP Representative in France and Monaco.

© WFP helicopter with 5MT of cargo including tents, medicines and family kits from Beira to Nhamatanda, Mozambique, march 2019. WFP/Deborah Nguyen

Alain Boinet : Worldwide, 821 million people suffer from hunger. Among them, 87 million of the most vulnerable are assisted by the WFP, mainly in conflict zones. In the context of Covid-19, have you managed to secure your stocks for 3 months and are you now able to help these populations with your partners? Do you have the financial means to do so following Antonio Guterres’ appeal to raise 2 billion dollars?

Geneviève Wills :  It is estimated that 135 million people were suffering from acute food insecurity in the world before the appearance of COVID-19 (GRFC 2020). As a result of COVID-19, an additional 130 million people are now at risk of acute food insecurity (WFP estimate). This could increase the number of acutely food insecure people in the world to 265 million by the end of the year. These are people living in low- and middle-income countries who, according to WFP’s analysis and monitoring, may be at risk because of VIDOC-related restrictions affecting their incomes.

We estimate that 30 million people could starve to death during the VIDOC-19 pandemic if WFP and our partners are unable to implement planned programmes or our ability to reach populations. This figure does not include the increase in starvation due to COVID-19.

WFP’s Executive Director addressed the UN Security Council yesterday to sound the alarm: “While we are facing a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the verge of a hunger pandemic. »

A letter of appeal was sent to donors by the Executive Director of WFP on 23 March, asking for US$1.9 billion to be made available urgently to prepare for and respond to the global emergency of COVID-19. This does not represent additional funding requirements, but three months of procurement and positioning needs. Since this appeal, $778 million has been confirmed (41% of the total).

WFP pre-positions three-month food stocks in or near the most fragile countries and ensures that three-month funding is available for cash transfer programmes. This means we can minimize disruption, be flexible and adjust our response to needs and circumstances. In some locations, WFP distributes two months’ assistance to ensure that beneficiaries have enough provisions to sustain them in the near future, and we also adapt our distribution methods to ensure that we help contain the spread of COVID-19.

On the issue of the $2 billion OCHA plan, $350 million is being requested by WFP for common services to support the overall efforts of the humanitarian community. If we cannot adequately deploy essential logistical support services, the response to the pandemic in the world’s most fragile environments will be compromised.

WFP’s common logistics services play a critical role in enabling humanitarian and health workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic to stay on the ground and take action. Currently, the funding received out of the $350 million plan is $85 million (24%).

Earlier this year, we estimated that we would need US$12 billion for our work in 2020. This figure could easily increase depending on the impact of the pandemic. But as the impact of COVID-19 on economies becomes clearer, we are increasingly concerned that we may be short US$5 billion of what we thought we would need in 2020, before the pandemic hits.

©WFP assists the beneficiaries of the Savane resettlement centre through the cash payment modality (vouchers), Mozambique, march 2020. WFP/Rafael Campos.

The humanitarian community fears a break in the supply chain in the face of the global Covid-19. Where do you stand in your assessment of the consequences of disruptions to the delivery of aid globally?

Restrictions on global movement, tighter border controls and the closure of commercial transport mean that the usual routes for humanitarian and health organizations are disrupted. WFP needs to ensure that its equipment and staff can quickly reach the areas where they are most needed. With its proven expertise in this area, WFP is developing its joint logistics services for partners to support the global humanitarian and health response.

On the issue of the global food supply chain, disruptions so far have been minimal – food supplies are adequate and markets are relatively stable. Global cereal stocks are at the required level and the outlook for wheat and other major staple crops for 2020 is positive. But we could soon see disruptions in food supply chains. If major importers or governments lose confidence in the reliability of global food commodity flows, the resulting panic buying would push up prices.

We are seeing challenges in terms of logistics involving the movement of food, but these have so far been limited. In southern Africa, for example, while many ports have been closed to passengers, they continue to handle cargo quite efficiently, although in many cases the number of berths used has been reduced.

We could soon see disruptions in food supply chains. Blockages in transport routes are particularly disruptive to fresh food supply chains and can lead to increased food losses and waste. Transport restrictions and quarantine measures are likely to hamper farmers’ access to markets. We must therefore continue to work to limit post-harvest losses and overall food wastage, especially in urban areas.

Labour shortages could disrupt food production and processing, especially for labour-intensive crops, especially in vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, prices of key commodities are not expected to soar, but high-value products, especially meat and perishable foods, are more likely to rise. For more information on this topic, see : WFP report on topic

We must ensure that this health crisis does not turn into a food crisis. We have enough food in the world to feed everyone. What we see in the Black Sea region where we buy wheat is that there is availability. It is the same in Asia where we buy vegetable oil and in North America where we buy legumes. While it is natural for governments to put their needs first, the WFP urges nations to keep borders open for trade. We work with governments to find the right balance to keep export markets open, allowing us to buy food to feed the most vulnerable people.

In your opinion, what are the most high-risk areas in the world?

For many poor countries, the economic consequences will be more devastating than the disease itself. The situation is changing rapidly, and WFP needs to ensure that its response is flexible and adaptable to new and complex circumstances. WFP analyses the spread of COVID-19 in real time to inform the response. The pandemic affects all countries – and the most vulnerable countries will be those with fragile economies, services and health systems. These are also the countries where WFP is working. WFP has conducted an analysis that takes into account a range of factors, including our own capacity to respond in the country, and factors that analyse the level of development, the capacity of national health systems and dependence on food imports, to name a few. According to this analysis, the Middle East and West and Central Africa have the highest priority, followed by East Africa.

The countries to which we must give absolute priority are those with high pre-existing vulnerabilities and aggravated economic, socio-political, security and climatic fragility factors; and among these are countries that are dependent on imports and have weak logistics performance and supply chain systems. In Africa, we should think of landlocked and import-dependent countries, such as Malawi or Zimbabwe, or countries where conflict and climate change have already put a strain on food security, such as Burkina Faso or Southern Sudan. Most of these countries – those already facing multiple crises and dependent on international assistance to meet their minimum basic needs – are also those covered by the Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

WFP has been preparing an operational plan with Airlift Hubs for the past few weeks. Is this plan ready and can you give us the main lines of it?

WFP is in the process of setting up hubs in key locations (Guangzhou, Liège and Dubai) where equipment is manufactured – but we urgently need the funds to do so. So far, a request for an additional $350 million to support this work has received very limited funding (just 24%). The objective is to put in place a comprehensive system that will enable the entire national and international humanitarian community to respond comprehensively to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing air passenger and cargo capacity and critical infrastructure. A humanitarian response cannot function without staff support in terms of transport, medical evacuation systems and health centres to treat sick humanitarian workers, especially in areas where commercial aircraft do not fly and where health systems are collapsing due to the impact of the pandemic.

WFP also plans to operate a passenger transport service for humanitarian and health workers from Geneva and Rome to critical locations across Africa.

Since the end of January, WFP has sent medical cargo to 86 countries to support governments and health partners in their response to COVID-19. These shipments include personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and gowns, respirators, emergency health kits, anaesthesia kits, stretchers, thermometers, body bags and water purification supplies, as well as logistics equipment.

On 14 April, WFP began shipping medical shipments – including one million masks – from its recently completed humanitarian hub in Addis Ababa to 52 African countries – the so-called “solidarity flights”. A team of 25 WFP aviation and logistics staff is based at Bole International Airport and manages the 24-hour operation, which moves cargo and humanitarian workers across the continent. They manage storage space for dry bulk, temperature-controlled and refrigerated cargo, as well as air transport.

©Loading at a WFP depot in Brindisi, Italy, equipment destined for Wuhan.

NGOs are asking this question. In the context of Covid-19, the WFP does not seem to want to go as usual with its many partners through the “logistics cluster” or “Global Logistics Cluster” which usually coordinates requests and actors within the framework of prioritization. The NGOs note that everything seems to be centralized at the level of the WFP. The NGOs fear that they will no longer be able to use these services when they are most needed in the crisis field. What can you tell them?

The services that WFP has offered and for which it actively raises funds through GHRP are aimed at the entire humanitarian community, both NGOs and UN agencies. WFP uses all the supply chain assets and experience at its disposal to support the humanitarian community, and this includes existing coordination mechanisms such as the WFP-led Logistics Cluster, which actively works to gather information on partners’ supply chain needs for response and, in turn, shares the information available to support partners in their operational planning.

The humanitarian response to this pandemic will be on a scale never seen before and will require the efforts of the entire humanitarian community. WFP stands ready to provide the logistical support needed to make it happen.

Existing partnerships with the public and private sector will be leveraged and used to complement WFP’s logistical capacity, resources, expertise and services.

The objectives are as follows:

– Support health partners and country efforts to strengthen national health systems and provide access to essential medical supplies, including equipment, treatment facilities and training.

– To ensure that the most remote people, who rely on WFP and humanitarian partners for their livelihoods, are able to benefit from continuity of assistance.

– Ensure duty of care for WFP staff and the wider humanitarian community.

As an example, France, a long-time partner of WFP, recently made cargo available on board one of its Air France aircraft bound for Mali. The plane unloaded isolation rooms for VIDOC patients19 last Friday in Bamako. These kits are intended for possible medical evacuations by UNHAS and its operator SAS. We would like to thank the Crisis and Support Centre and Air France for their support. We need to mobilize as much as possible the existing means used in the civilian sector for the humanitarian community when they are available.

As indicated in the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, an initial amount of US$ 350 million is urgently required to rapidly expand the common services provided by WFP for humanitarian partners to ensure real-time monitoring of the global situation and to provide the essential investments needed to ensure the security of operations and services worldwide. This is an initial investment that may increase as the response progresses.

Beyond the 87 million most vulnerable people, Covid-19 will certainly increase the number of people to be rescued. Can you estimate the number and do you think you will have the necessary financial resources, food supplies, health materials and authorizations for transport and distribution?

It is essential that in this time of global crisis, WFP maintains its food aid programmes, which provide a lifeline to nearly 100 million vulnerable people around the world. WFP’s top priority is to ensure that it has the resources to meet the food and nutritional needs of those who depend on its assistance. We are particularly concerned about the 30 million people living in fragile countries, people already facing extreme hunger, violence and disease. They are highly dependent on aid and would probably die without WFP assistance.

The socio-economic impact of the pandemic will be far more devastating than the disease itself. WFP estimates that in East Africa alone, the number of food-insecure people is expected to double in the next three months, from 20 million to 34-43 million. Lives and livelihoods will be at serious risk unless swift action is taken to combat the pandemic, with the people of Africa and the Middle East being of greatest concern.

WFP has adapted its programmes to limit the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of its beneficiaries, staff and partners: this is an area in which WFP has gained considerable experience during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2016. WFP’s number one priority is the health and safety of our beneficiaries, partners and staff, and we comply with the recommendations of local health authorities and the WHO.  As a preventive measure, WFP has reviewed food distributions to reduce crowding and limit the risk of infection by staggering attendance, redesigning facilities to allow for physical distance, adapting distribution cycles and increasing the number of distribution sites and retail stores. Mitigation measures have been put in place, including health screenings, hand washing stations and sensitization of communities on prevention measures. WFP is also seeking to provide other means of food assistance, such as food parcels, vouchers or take-home rations, to compensate for interruptions in prepared meal programmes (including school feeding).

©UNHAS staff and passengers prepare for a flight and check in by applying and following the measures introduced to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, Afghanistan, Kabul, 5 April 2020.  WFP/Jorge Diaz.

You represent WFP in Paris. What is the role of your office in Paris and how are you currently working with France to respond to the crisis?

The Paris office is a liaison office with a variety of missions. Its job is to liaise with the French government and civil society and inform them of WFP’s needs and activities on the ground. The office coordinates with the headquarters in Rome, as well as with other offices around the world. We assist country offices, regional bureaux and headquarters divisions in raising funds for WFP operations. On the other hand, our team implements advocacy and communication for the ODD Faim Zéro and on WFP operations, liaises with the French-speaking press, various partners and key French officials and decision-makers. It also ensures the visibility of France as a donor to the WFP.

Alain Boinet : Would you like to add anything to conclude?

Geneviève Wills : We must not neglect to mention the impact of COVID on school feeding:

The COVID-19 crisis has had an enormous impact on schoolchildren, as nearly 1.6 billion children and youth – 91% of the world’s enrolled learners – have had to stay away from schools and universities because of the pandemic (UNESCO). National closures are in effect in some 192 countries, while in many others, localized closures could spread to the whole country, with enormous repercussions on students’ learning and other essential aspects of their lives, such as school meals.

Some children may never recover from school closures – the poorest will miss years of schooling, and some may never return – such as girls and older children. As a result of the pandemic, nearly 370 million schoolchildren are missing out on the school meals on which they depend. A WFP interactive map showing how COVID-19 disrupts children’s school meals provides daily on-screen updates on school closures and the number of children who no longer receive school meals as a result. Partial or country-wide school closures were reported in 52 countries where WFP is implementing school feeding programmes. This means that more than 12 million children no longer receive school meals from WFP. WFP is working with governments and partners to ensure that schoolchildren and their families continue to receive support that meets their food and nutritional needs during the COVID-19 crisis.

A partnership between UNICEF and WFP on school health and nutrition is being expanded in response to the impact of COVID-19. The agencies will work together to implement alternative solutions to ensure that children receive the meals and services they depend on during school closures. Agencies are also preparing to reopen schools so that children return to school and receive an integrated package of school health and nutrition services.

In countries where schools are closed, WFP assesses possible alternatives. These include providing take-home rations instead of meals, delivering food to homes and providing cash or vouchers. In countries where schools are still open, the priority is to ensure that hygiene, behavioural and food safety standards are met and that social distancing measures are taken to reduce the risk of increased infections. WFP is working with partners to improve access to water and sanitation. Together with FAO and UNICEF, WFP developed guidance for government programmes to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the food and nutrition of schoolchildren.

WFP’s school feeding programmes span 61 countries around the world and serve as an essential social safety net for poor and vulnerable households. Some programmes provide complete meals, while others distribute fortified snacks. In countries with high levels of poverty, WFP offers take-home rations that have proven nutritional benefits for younger siblings.

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Geneviève Wills


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