Covid-19 and food: the keys of Doctor David Nabarro
What is the relationship between the pandemic that is sweeping the world and food? We had the honour of discussing this issue with Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s Special Envoy of the Director General for the COVID-19 pandemic at the international level.
Question: Experts agree that healthy eating is the basis for a strong immune system. Could a healthy diet be a strategy to slow down the progression of COVID-19?
Answer: It is clear that the capacity of our bodies to defend themselves against invading viruses depends enormously on the functioning of our immune systems. And our immune systems work best when we’re well nourished, with an adequate intake of energy, protein and micronutrients. Good nutrition is key.
I’m also aware that in some people, the virus causes disease through activating a really intense immune response. Immune hyperactivity can be also associated with suffering incubate. And that’s why sometimes the treatment is based on medicines that will modulate that immune activity.
Now, it’s reasonable to assume that if immune response is dependent on good nutrition, then people should be encouraged to consume healthy diets as part of their ability to be strong in the face of COVID-19.
Q: What is the relationship between food and the emergence and evolution of COVID-19?
A: There are reports suggesting that vitamin D does play an important role in protecting against severe illness with COVID-19. Apart from that, there are other reports suggesting that zinc and vitamin A may be relevant as well, and that’s because of their role in ensuring healthy epithelium. Now, the real relationship between COVID and food comes through the impact of the disease and of containment efforts on people’s ability to access the food they need for good nutrition.
If containment is associated with widespread movement restrictions, then it gets very difficult for poor people to earn the income they need to live. If they can’t earn income, they aren‘t able to buy food. It’s high nutrient food that is particularly important. In the case of adults, it’s just the food they need for life. But particularly in the case of those who are doing intense work or pregnant women who are eating themselves and the child who is on the way, nutritious food is absolutely key to making certain that people are able to cope with the containment efforts without experiencing malnutrition.
I want to stress this also seems to be particularly affecting poorer people. That means that if poor people are most at risk and they are also the most affected by the containment measures like movement restrictions, then this is a particular challenge. And I would like to suggest that all responses to COVID should prioritize the interests of those who are the poorest.
Q: During confinement, there was a tendency to shift to healthier eating habits as a way of preventing the disease. In which other ways did confinement alter these habits?
A: In some parts of the world, people did adopt healthier eating habits, and in particular this meant that they were more likely to buy food that came from nearby producers, and they were also more likely to cook for themselves rather than to eat out. Now, that seems to have been really important, particularly for people who are in the wealthier income groups.
On the other hand, confinement has been really difficult for people in poor income groups, especially those whose children depended on school meals for a large portion of their nutrition. I think that is the reason we see that people did get quite nervous when there were shortages of food because of confinement. Indeed, in some places, those who had savings would go out and buy in order to keep stocks in their home. Again, you had to be well off to do this.
Q: In some parts of the world, a large part of the population started to buy excessively for fear of a possible shortage. What role does moderate, supportive and ethical consumption play in times of crisis? How can public bodies encourage this kind of behaviour?
A: For a period, there were shortages not just of food, but certain consumable items in shops. That shows us is people do get naturally frightened when there is a major crisis. They worry that there’s going to be a shortage, and so they stockpile. And we’ve seen reports of stockpiling of protective equipment, health workers in hospitals, of medicines for hospitals, stockpiling of other goods associated with anxiety about border closures and stockpiling of food. And I’m not surprised by that.
Obviously, one wants to encourage people not to stockpile unless there’s a really evident reason for it. But it’s a natural tendency that all people pursue when they’re worried. And that can lead to shortages, as we saw in Europe, for example, with packaged flour. I think it’s always useful with public organizations help to reassure the public there’s no significant shortage, because rumors about shortages can drive purchasing behavior. We know that from multiple crisis in the past.
Q: Taking into account the fact that the world population continues to grow, especially in urban areas, what characteristics should our food systems count with?
A: As we look ahead, there are a number of features of food systems that need attention, and these needs have been revealed through COVID. First of all, out of food systems respond to a rapid increase in numbers of poor and hungry people, and so it’s really essential that there is good social protection and access to nutritious food, particularly for poor people in times of crisis.
Secondly, food systems with long supply chains have proved to be particularly susceptible to disruption because in a crisis, borders are closed and transportation gets disrupted. So there’s a real value in having short supply chains wherever possible, linking producers to consumers.
Thirdly, when producers cannot sell their food, for example, because markets are disrupted, that creates major problems for them, such as getting into debt. It’s sometimes difficult to get extra loans or to get opportunities to postpone repayment of loans. Yet, if you’re a producer and your market suddenly disappeared, you don’t have a continued income. We’ve had reports of producers actually having to waste some of their produce deliberately and particularly dairy or vegetables or fruits, simply because they couldn’t sell them, because the demand dried up. This is a major problem.
Q: What valuable initiatives helped to alleviate that particular context?
A: In some countries, a lot of care was given to supporting producers by helping them with cash grants or by enabling them to postpone repayment of loan use. This is very important because the last thing anybody wants is to see producers stress increased as a result of the confinement. The world is very dependent on the efforts of local organizations, particularly small enterprises and medium enterprises that are functioning food systems. And yet during the confinement process earlier this year, a lot of small and medium enterprises faced really difficult financial situations. And we’re hearing reports that there’s been large numbers of bankruptcies. This is not good for food systems.
I do hope that everybody concerned will look very hard at the situation of small and medium enterprises involved in food systems and check that they have as much protection as possible. Often, cash grants could make a lot of difference.