ZIMBABWE is currently experiencing its worst drought, which will leave 7,7 million people facing starvation, the World Food Programme (WFP) warns. As the country’s food crisis continues to persist after a poor rainy season, the humanitarian situation is likely to worsen due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This has not made things easier for humanitarian organisations battling to feed hungry Zimbabweans after the country entered into a lockdown last Monday. Humanitarian organisations like the WFP remain on high alert. Reporter Nyasha Chingono (NC) this week interviewed WFP country representative Eddie Rowe (ER, pictured right) on the agency’s humanitarian responses during the pandemic. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NC: The WFP has been assisting more than two million people in Zimbabwe and your distribution points normally have large numbers of people. What are you doing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at food distribution points?
ER: WFP is determined to ensure that it continues to meet the urgent food and nutrition needs of almost four million people in Zimbabwe who depend on food assistance while ensuring their safety and the safety of our partners and staff. WFP is ensuring all health and safety mechanisms, as advised by WHO (World Health Organisation), are put in place at its food distribution sites.
WFP and its co-operating partners in collaboration with local authorities are installing hand-washing facilities and providing protective clothing to staff and partners. We are staggering distributions to prevent overcrowding. WFP and its partners have launched a communications campaign to pass important health, safety and hygiene information, via SMS, radio and in small community meetings.
NC: Government activated a lockdown last week, how will you reach out to the vulnerable communities?
ER: WFP’s top priority is to meet urgent humanitarian needs for millions of hungry Zimbabweans, while ensuring the most vulnerable are protected from any potential health risks posed by Covid-19.
Our ongoing operations must deliver at full capacity. Most of the people who depend on WFP food assistance are already facing challenges relating to drought-induced crop failure, economic instability in the country and a daily struggle to get food for their families.
WFP has responded to the government of Zimbabwe’s stipulations and reduced our footprint in the country significantly. We will work with the Government of Zimbabwe to adjust our assistance accordingly. This may mean we have to consider a different modality to deliver food assistance, for example, mobile cash transfers.
NC: Are you going to switch back to cash or stick to food aid?
ER: WFP is constantly reviewing the way it delivers assistance in Zimbabwe, so it is better able to respond to any sudden changes in people’s access to food or food availability.
WFP is continuing its analysis of the economic and food security situation in Zimbabwe to determine if it’s feasible to switch from delivering in-kind food assistance to cash.
The Government of Zimbabwe has just announced the country will switch back to transacting in US dollar. WFP is looking closely into all scenarios and will be ready to adjust its operations if necessary. Whether cash or in kind, we are making sure everyone will get their food entitlement at the right time.
NC: The borders are closed. Will this delay the distribution of food aid? How many people are likely to be affected by this?
ER: From the current measures by the government of Zimbabwe, borders are not closed for cargo and this will not affect any movement.
NC: What measures have you put in place to ensure smooth distribution of food aid?
ER: With the Covid-19 outbreak, WFP endeavours to ensure continuity in our food assistance operations while observing all necessary precautions to help prevent the disease from spreading.
WFP together with the Government of Zimbabwe, UN and co-operating partners on the ground have drafted a community-based communications plan to sensitise communities on the health, safety and social distancing measures to take, in order to prevent the spread of the virus and counter any misinformation.
WFP is ensuring all health and safety mechanisms, as advised by WHO, are put in place at its food distribution sites. WFP and its co-operating partners in collaboration with local authorities are installing hand-washing facilities and providing protective clothing to staff and partners. Hand-washing facilities are being installed at all food distribution points and are being monitored.
WFP’s partners are being trained on identifying new cases and taking necessary precautions. WFP is also promoting its helpline to communities to ensure any feedback, concerns or fears about their food assistance is addressed.
NC: The WFP headquarters is under lockdown and your executive director tested positive for Covid-19. How does this affect operations and the morale of WFP staff here in Zimbabwe?
ER: We operate in Zimbabwe and the lockdown at HQ in Italy will not affect operations here. WFP has activated its business continuity plan (BCP) in Zimbabwe and the UN contingency plan is also in place and we are following specific measures for staff safety.
The BCP includes the list of essential and business critical staff, telecommuting work and impact of quarantine for incoming staff. For now, arrangements to hold workshops, seminars or large meetings will be limited until further notice. Using advanced communications software and remote technology solutions, existing telecommuting arrangements at WFP headquarters have been extended as the virus took hold in Italy.
WFP Zimbabwe has successfully tested remote working scenarios for all staff and is providing additional power or technological support where needed. We receive regular updates from our executive director and he is improving daily and in good spirits which is lifting ours.
NC: This pandemic is hitting rich and poor countries at the same time. Are we not going to see a decline in donor contributions towards Zimbabwe?
ER: Donor contributions are always influenced by different factors. It is a fact we are facing a pandemic; we are also faced with hunger, floods and conflicts. So, we cannot predict a decline in donor contributions.
WFP has a critical role to play in maintaining its scale-up of food assistance, while supporting Zimbabwe’s humanitarian response to the Covid-19 pandemic. WFP still requires an additional US$111 million between March and August to meet the needs of the 4,1 million most vulnerable food insecure people in Zimbabwe.
WFP is asking government partners to allow maximum flexibility in the way that resources are used so that food assistance programmes can respond dynamically to the rapidly changing outlook.
NC: Finally, what measures have you put in place to protect your staff that is on the forefront of providing food aid?
ER: Staff wellness is critical if WFP is to maintain its capacity to respond to the needs of the millions of people who require urgent food assistance in 2020. Business continuity during the pandemic will place an additional strain on WFP staff but every possible measure is being taken to ensure that technology and support will be made available to allow colleagues to continue to work.
WFP staff are following corporate guidance on travel and working practices during this period and avoid any activities that could lead to the further spread of the Covid-19 virus. Personal hygiene, especially the frequent washing of hands, is vital in the current context.