Making sure the poor do not go hungry
Arab governments are scrambling to make sure there is food on the table for the unemployed, the poor and other vulnerable segments of society, which risk being hit hard by the effects of the confinement measures required by the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a regional organisation that includes 18 Arab countries, the pandemic could push an additional 8.3 million people below the poverty level. Two more million people will suffer from poor nourishment.
There are, based on ESCWA estimates, already more than 101 million individuals who can be considered poor and 52 million who are undernourished in the Arab world.
They are introducing economic stimulus packages to limit the impact of the global health crisis on enterprises and making sure they stay afloat.
With trade, travel, tourism and other service industries being drastically curtailed, economic activity is slowing down.
Concern is that if companies go under, thousands of employees could join the already bloated ranks of the jobless in the coming weeks and months.
Special attention will need to be devoted to people left without an income, especially those living off the informal sector. Activities in the so-called parallel market constitute 50% or more of economic activity in North Africa and a few other parts of the Arab world.
Allocation of special subsidies and free distribution of food to needy populations are one justified option.
Safeguarding food reserves against hoarding and preventing shortages will also be needed to ensure the availability of basic staples and limit speculation.
Many Arab leaders are legitimately trying to reassure their populations about the availability of food reserves during the month of Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and beyond.
Some, like the United Arab Emirates, have enacted laws to secure food supplies and monitor retailers’ stocks.
But this is a global issue and not just a regional concern.
There is wariness about the isolationist reflexes that the fear of shortages even before any real shortages materialises.
“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” said the joint text by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”
Recent manifestations of unrest in such places as Lebanon and Tunisia show the impact of the confinement measures on poorer sections of society.
US Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that the combined effect of the pandemic and economic slowdown could lead to “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest and enhanced conflict.”
Beyond such risks, helping offset the fallout of the pandemic on the poor and vulnerable in the region is a collective responsibility of all Arab societies and not just governments.