Coronavirus headlines: Pandemic could threaten global food supply, UN warns

Coronavirus

Sunday, April 12, 2020

10:45 P.M. UPDATE:

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 25 new cases of the coronavirus and three more virus-related deaths, bringing its totals to 10,537 infections and 217 fatalities.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said at least 929 cases were linked to passengers arriving from abroad, with most of them detected over the past three weeks.

South Korea’s caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting around 500 new cases a day, but officials have raised concerns over a broader “quiet spread,” pointing to transmissions at bars and other leisure facilities that supposedly indicate eased attitudes toward social distancing.

South Korean Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun during a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Monday said officials are discussing new public guidelines that would allow for people to engage in “certain levels of economic and social activity” while also maintaining distance to slow the spread of the virus.

9:30 P.M. UPDATE:

(CNN) — As the novel coronavirus pandemic shuts down businesses globally and sends countries into lockdown, the disruptions are threatening to cut off supply chains and increase food insecurity.

“Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said in a report released late last month. “But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more.”

The issue, however, is not food scarcity — at least, not yet. Rather, it’s the world’s drastic measures in response to the virus.

Border closures, movement restrictions, and disruptions in the shipping and aviation industries have made it harder to continue food production and transport goods internationally — placing countries with few alternative food sources at high risk.

Airlines have grounded thousands of planes and ports have closed — stranding containers of food, medicine, and other products on tarmacs and holding areas, said the UN Conference on Trade and Development on March 25.

Heightened instability in global food supply will affect the poorest citizens most, warned the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in a paper last month.

Even private companies and organizations have called for immediate action to address the looming food catastrophe.

“Governments, businesses, civil society and international agencies need to take urgent, coordinated action to prevent the COVID pandemic turning into a global food and humanitarian crisis,” said an open letter to world leaders from scientists, politicians, and companies like Nestle and Unilever.

China’s technological advances softened the blow

China was worst-hit by the virus in January and February, when thousands of new cases were being reported each day.

The country imposed lockdowns, suspended inter-provincial trave and ordered residents to stay at home, disrupting business in virtually all sectors.

“In China, logistics constraints and labor crunches have caused losses of fresh vegetables, limited access to animal feed and diminished capacity of slaughterhouses,” said the FAO report.

China has faced severe food shortages before; historians estimate tens of millions of people starved to death in a famine caused by an economic campaign known as the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1962.

But modern China is an entirely different country, with new technologies and wealth — and it has been working for years to improve its food security, spending tens of billions of dollars this past decade purchasing major seed businesses.

These efforts appear to have softened the blow to the food industry this time around. The central government distributed $20 million in subsidies to revive agriculture, and invested in technology including agricultural drones and unmanned vehicles that could keep supply chains moving without human contact, said the FAO report.

When people did go into the fields to work, they wore government-provided masks and protective equipment, and were given disinfectant from local authorities, said state-run news agency Xinhua.

Even the country’s dominant e-commerce market stepped in; provincial lockdowns and movement restrictions hampered the export and transport of goods, so e-commerce giant Alibaba set up a fund to help farmers find markets for their unsold products, the report said.

Australia is facing export pressure

Australia exports about two thirds of its agricultural products and is a major supplier for the Asia Pacific region — but this crucial trade is now under threat.

The aviation industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and international flights have been slashed. Fewer flights mean it’s now more expensive to export food via air travel, said Richard Shannon, manager of policy and advocacy at Growcom, the representative body for horticulture in Queensland state.

“The industry is rapidly trying to find alternate routes,” he said — but some Australian farmers may try to find new buyers within the country instead of looking internationally.

This threatens the entire country’s economy in two ways. About 14.5% of all Australian exports are food products, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC). If farmers aren’t able to export their goods, it could cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost income.

The next best option is for farmers to sell their goods within Australia — so all these agricultural products that typically are sent out into the world are suddenly entering the domestic market. This influx could put a lot of pressure on the market, and affect the price at which these goods are sold, Shannon said.

The government stepped in with emergency aid, announcing it would spend 110 million Australian dollars ($67.4 million) to increase the number of flights and help exporters transport their goods to key international markets.

But the pandemic has also posed other problems. Winter is arriving in Australia — which means seasonal workers nationwide are flocking to Queensland, which grows more than 90% of the country’s winter vegetables. Suddenly, small rural towns are booming with people arriving from out of state, looking for work on farms.

With such a high volume of people living and working in close quarters, just a handful of infections could spell disaster for farm operations — but these farms can’t just shut down for 14 days, the way businesses in other sectors might.

“We’re an essential service,” Shannon said. “People need to continue eating.”

Queensland authorities and growers are now working to create protocol that can both keep workers safe and prevent farm shutdowns, like staggering lunch shifts to reduce the number of people in close contact.

Hong Kong and Singapore can buy their way out

Hong Kong and Singapore are two of Asia’s major financial hubs — but with limited farmland, they both have tiny agricultural sectors and import more than 90% of their food, according to government websites.

Despite this, they are in little danger of food shortages, experts say. For starters, they both have a main supplier; Hong Kong imports the vast majority of its food from mainland China, and Singapore imports from Malaysia. As long as these major sources stay steady, food staples will be secure, and halted imports from other countries won’t make too big an impact.

Even when China was in the depths of its coronavirus crisis, food still flowed across the border into Hong Kong, said Jonathan Wong, director of the Institute of Bioresource and Agriculture at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Some niche products like oysters from France may be cut off for a while — but these aren’t daily necessities, and Hong Kong can replace the supply through other countries, said Wong.

And although Malaysia is currently under a nationwide lockdown, the food industry is one of the essential services exempt.

“Our supply chains are intact and there has been no disruption to Singapore’s imports,” said the Singapore government in a statement after Malaysia announced the lockdown.

Even if there was any kind of disruption, Singapore has two months’ worth of produce stockpiled, and has diversified its sources so it isn’t wholly reliant on Malaysia, said Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Facebook.

The Pacific Islands are at highest risk

The crucial thing that sets places Singapore and Hong Kong apart is that they have the resources to buy their food from alternate sources if any supply lines are compromised. But that isn’t true for import-reliant, low-income countries like the Pacific Islands.

“The most at risk are those without solid economic bases, like Kiribati or Micronesia or Tuvalu,” said David Dawe, FAO senior economist.

Some developing countries such as Laos or Myanmar produce enough staples including rice that they can survive an import drain — but these Pacific Islands are so small that they don’t grow much of their own food, said Dawe. They are “remote anyway to start with and rely heavily on imports.”

These islands typically rely on tourism for much of their income — but nobody is traveling in the midst of a global pandemic. The loss of tourism revenue, the lack of domestic food production, and the lack of a financial or food safety net mean these countries are “really getting hit from both sides,” said Dawe.

Food shortages and price hikes could lead to severe food insecurity for already vulnerable populations.

“For some people, it might literally mean no food on the table,” Dawe said. “It might mean trying to borrow money from people at high interest rates. It may mean having to go all the way back to your village, where in some cases you have to walk if public transport is shut down, to ride it out together with your family.”

What the world needs to do

The UN is now urging affected countries to implement emergency measures domestically, as well as work together on a global level to protect food supply.

Governments can protect their citizens by mobilizing food banks, offering cash transfers to vulnerable households, establishing emergency food reserves, and taking steps to protect agricultural workers, said the FAO.

International cooperation and open global trade is also key; governments should eliminate export restrictions and import tariffs during this time, said the report. Poorer countries who can’t afford stimulus packages and agricultural bailouts should seek international funding.

“The world was awfully unprepared for the pandemic,” said the FAO report.

“But by keeping the gears of the supply chains moving and actively seeking international cooperation to keep trade open, countries can prevent food shortages and protect the most vulnerable populations.”

7:30 P.M. UPDATE:

PARIS — The overall death toll in France from the coronavirus has risen to nearly 14,400, but for the fourth day in a row, slightly fewer people were admitted into intensive care — 35 fewer — giving health officials a reason to grasp for good news.

Sunday’s statistics issued by the Health Ministry confirm the country is reaching a “very high plateau” and reflect initial signs that nearly four weeks of confinement and the “drastic reduction in contacts” are producing an effect, a statement said.

Strict confinement measures began March 17, were renewed once and are expected to be extended again, with a likely announcement to the nation Monday by President Emmanuel Macron.

Since March 1, hospitals and nursing homes have counted 14,393 deaths.

Of the 31,836 people currently hospitalized for COVID-19, more than 1,600 were admitted in the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said.

Still, with more than 6,800 patients being treated in intensive care Sunday, that was 35 people fewer than a day earlier, a ray of hope for overworked health workers and authorities looking for small signs of change.

Since the start of the epidemic in France, more than 95,400 people have been infected.

5:00 P.M. UPDATE:

(CNN) — Easter Sunday dawned across America like none before it.

Millions of Americans are observing the holiday in the shadow of the coronavirus, forcing many congregations to celebrate online in an effort to honor social distancing efforts.

But some planned to gather anyway, putting public health restrictions on a collision course with religious institutions.

The country has recorded at least 21,686 deaths and 546,874 cases so far during the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. All 50 states are under a federal disaster declaration for the first time in US history.

On Saturday night, the Justice Department said it expects to take action this week against regulations on religious institutions, as states and local governments try to curtail gatherings.

Various courts are already hearing cases about the regulations, but the department said it may file lawsuits alongside churches.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the state amended a public health order banning mass gatherings to include houses of worship.

“The risk is simply too great,” the governor said on Twitter Saturday. She said she was “so grateful for the support & cooperation from the vast majority of religious leaders of all faiths who have already made the difficult decision to cancel services in the interest of public health.”

In Kentucky, authorities said they will record license plates of those who show up to any gatherings and hand that information over to the local health department. That will require those people to stay quarantined for 14 days, Gov. Andy Beshear said.

The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, tried to stop a church from holding a drive-in Easter service, even though drive-in liquor stores are still permitted under the state’s stay-at-home policy. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Saturday that overturned the effort.

In New York, at least 758 people died on Saturday, bringing the statewide death toll to 9,385, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, adding the death rate there has flattened “at a terribly high rate.”

“That’s the one number that I look forward to seeing drop as soon as I open my eyes in the morning,” he said in a news conference Sunday.

But despite the bleak news, Cuomo shared a message of hope likening the pandemic to a “cold winter, where the earth becomes barren,” that will eventually give way to spring.

“We will come back to life, and we will have a rebirth,” he said. “And that’s what spring is all about.”

Efforts to contain virus continue across states

President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration Saturday for Wyoming, the final state to get one. It makes federal funds available to supplement state and local efforts to deal with the pandemic.

A state declaration of disaster also focuses the entire state government on the emergency and heightens awareness. Declarations also allow governors to sidestep certain laws and regulations.

In addition to the states, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Washington, DC, Guam and Puerto Rico have also been declared disasters.

Gov. Cuomo will sign an executive order directing employers to provide essential workers with a cloth or surgical face mask — free of cost to the worker — when they are interacting with the public, he said Sunday.

Cuomo also said a decision had not been made on closing New York City schools through the end of the academic year. The day prior he disputed an announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio that schools would close while students continue remote learning.

De Blasio said Saturday evening he and the governor would always “work things through in the common interest of our people.”

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott extended a disaster declaration for the state, urging Texans to continue to socially distance and adhere to guidelines laid out by officials.

Illinois announced its second highest day of deaths Saturday with 1,293 new reported cases and 81 additional deaths.

And in New Jersey — where there were 61,850 cases as of Sunday — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is asking all businesses, including those deemed essential, to shut down for “Be Still Mondays.”

The goal is to further limit the spread of the virus as the death toll rises in the state and, according to Baraka, “We can get everything else back. What we can’t get back is people’s lives.”

Officials ponder when to reopen

Trump said Saturday night that he hopes to make a decision “fairly soon” on when to reopen the country currently shutdown by the coronavirus pandemic. He said he will set up a council to examine the issue and will base his decision on “facts” and “instinct.”

Two weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to open the country by Easter, but Friday he said he wouldn’t do anything until he knew the country was healthy again. Internally, officials are pushing to reopen the country by next month, with specific discussions underway about May 1, a person familiar with the talks told CNN.

New York Gov. Cuomo this weekend has pointed to positive changes in data as evidence that the state has reached the apex of its curve, which he has described in recent days as a plateau where numbers level off before eventually dropping.

But the state will not be able to reopen without federal assistance, Cuomo said.

“Nobody wants to pick between a public health strategy and an economic strategy, and as governor of this state, I’m not going to pick one over the other,” he said. “We need a public health strategy that is safe, that is consistent with an economic strategy.”

Many officials have agreed that more testing is needed before the country can begin a return to normal.

As a result, health experts have turned an eye toward developing antibody tests, which could verify whether a person recently had the virus, potentially protecting them from re-infection.

Fauci told CNN Friday that such tests could be available “within a period of a week or so.”

Such tests are not only seen as key to resuming normal life, but they’re also vital for health care workers and frontline professionals fighting the pandemic.

“If their antibody test is positive, one can formulate strategies about whether or not they would be at risk or vulnerable to getting re-infected,” he explained, adding tests that diagnose a current infection would still be important.

Cuomo said he would sign an executive order to expand the number of people who are eligible for testing.

Earlier mitigation efforts could have saved lives, Fauci says

Government projections obtained by The New York Times show that if stay at home orders were lifted after a month, there would be a bump in demand for ventilators and the US death toll could see a dramatic increase to 200,000, the Times reported.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects that if the country keeps social distancing measures until the end of May, about 61,500 Americans will lose their lives to the virus by August.

Still, the nation’s top infectious disease expert on Sunday conceded lives would have been saved had efforts to contain the virus been put in place earlier.

“Obviously you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Diseases said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

His comments came after The New York Times detailed the Trump administration’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic and how President Trump ignored his advisers’ warnings.

“But you’re right,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, if we had right from the very beginning shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different.”

1:00 P.M. UPDATE:

ROME (AP) — Italy recorded the lowest number of new coronavirus deaths in three weeks, saying 431 people died in the past day to bring its total to 19,899.

It was the lowest day-to-day toll since March 19.

For the ninth day running, intensive care admissions were down and hospitalizations overall were down, relieving pressure on Italy’s over-stressed health care system.

More than 4,000 people tested positive as Italy began its fifth week under nationwide lockdown, continuing a general flattening in its infection curve.

But officials have noted that Italy has also increased its testing capacity in recent days, yielding more positive cases but allowing for more effective quarantine measures for people once they know they are infected.

Italy crossed the 1 million virus test mark on Sunday, doubling the number of tests since the end of March. Overall, 156,363 people have been confirmed as positive, though officials note that the true number of infected could be as much as 10 times that, particularly in hard-hit Lombardy.

Officials have also warned that the true number of dead from the virus pandemic is higher, given the hundreds of elderly who have died in nursing homes but were never tested.

11:30 A.M. UPDATE:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is calling for solidarity the world over to confront the “epochal challenge” posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Francis issued the appeal from a nearly-empty St. Peter’s Basilica as Christians celebrated a solitary Easter blending the joyful feast day with sorrow over the virus’ toll. Families who normally would attend morning Mass in their Easter best and later join friends for celebratory lunches hunkered down at home. Police checkpoints in Europe and closed churches around the globe forced the faithful to watch Easter services online or on TV.  A few lucky Romans participated from their balconies overlooking Santa Emerenziana church as a priest celebrated a rooftop open-air Mass. The pope says “this is not a time for self-centeredness.”

9 A.M. UPDATE:

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been discharged from a London hospital where he was treated in intensive care for the new coronavirus. Johnson’s office says he left St. Thomas’ Hospital and will continue his recovery at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house. He will not immediately return to work. Johnson has been in the hospital for a week and spent three nights in the ICU. Earlier Johnson said he owes his life to staff at the National Health Service who treated him. Johnson said he “can’t thank them enough.” Government figures later Sunday are expected to show that the U.K. has surpassed 10,000 coronavirus-related deaths. 

7:30 A.M. UPDATE:

CLEVELAND (WJW) — The United States is now leading the world in deaths from the coronavirus.

The death toll rose across the country Saturday to more than 20,500 people.

There are now 6,250 cases of COVID-19 in Ohio. 247 people have died and nearly 1,900 patients have been hospitalized with nearly 1/3 of them in intensive care.

Health officials advise that although Ohio has begun to flatten the curve it is essential that residents continue to follow Governor Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order and maintain social distancing.

Meanwhile, the federal government says the first wave of stimulus payments was sent out on Saturday.

The treasury department says the first payments of up to $1,200 are going to the bank accounts of some 50 million Americans who filed their 2018 or 2019 tax returns and authorized the IRS to send their refund through direct deposit.

People on Social Security will also get their payments automatically in the near future.

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