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Rome-based UN food agency grapples with Italian coronavirus lockdown

OTTAWA — These days, no roads lead to Rome for David Beasley.

OTTAWA — These days, no roads lead to Rome for David Beasley.

The executive director of the United Nations World Food Program made that clear on a trip to Ottawa this week, where he was trying to raise money, testify before Parliament, cut the ribbon on a new branch office, and thank Canadians for helping his agency feed the tens of millions of starving people in countries afflicted by war and natural disaster.

Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic has complicated that task in ways Beasley never imagined when he moved to Rome to be the chief executive of one the UN's flagship agencies.

The World Health Organization declared Italy and Iran new front-line countries in the battle to contain the virus that started in China and has spread across the globe, including to Canada.

Italy's government on Tuesday ordered a national lockdown, which includes shutting businesses and halting non-essential transportation. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to express solidarity as his country struggles to contain a soaring death rate due to COVID-19.  

Italy's containment policy forced the WFP to take unprecedented steps to simply keep doing its work. The food agency has mounted a massive telecommuting effort to keep ships, planes and trains delivering food to crisis zones in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the continent's Sahel region and elsewhere.

"We tell the Italian government, 'Look we're in 83 countries, we're in war and conflict and we keep people alive. We can't shut down headquarters for any reason,' " Beasley said in an interview.

Sipping iced Mountain Dew from a paper cup, Beasley poked and scrolled his iPad as he described how the WFP has negotiated with the Italian government to keep its operations running while still complying with the spirit of the lockdown.

"You got to have a certificate — it just came in a minute ago," drawled the former South Carolina Republican governor. "You just can't be willy-nilly driving around Italy right now. You need a certificate saying, 'I am rightfully on the road going to work.' "

At least 1,800 WFP employees help orchestrate its global food distribution from the Rome headquarters, but only 200 of them are working from their actual cubicles this week. They are at home on laptops and iPads, supported by advanced communications software and regular platforms such as Skype. The WFP is conducting a systems analysis on how it can support countries gripped by war and conflict, cyclones, hurricanes, and now COVID-19, Beasley said.

Beasley said that is an unprecedented "test program" for his organization. It also stands as an example of how many agencies, companies, and governments will have to adapt their work to control the spread of the virus.

"We cannot let it stop our operations because people will die, whether it's in Syria or Iraq, or Niger or Mail or Sudan or Yemen," he said. "We can't afford not to do our job, no matter what virus is knocking at our door."

The agency feeds 85 million to 90 million people on any given day, and if that stopped as many as 25,000 would die within a day from lack of food, he said.

On Wednesday, the WHO declared the virus outbreak a pandemic. Ordinarily, the World Food Program would work as the main logistics and containment support agency for the WHO in dealing with global health emergencies. It was already doing that in China when the outbreak started in Wuhan, said Beasley.

"In Wuhan, they began to have a food-security problem because the supply chain was breaking down," he said.

In rural areas, chicken feed and pig feed weren't being delivered, "which means chickens die, pigs die, therefore it exacerbates an already tense situation."

With a record number of wars and disasters across the globe, Beasley entered 2020 believing the world was headed for its worst humanitarian year in his lifetime. 

That was before COVID-19.

Now, as the lead fundraiser for an agency that runs on handouts from governments and private citizens, Beasley sees a "perfect storm" forming as countries that were already underspending on humanitarian assistance spend billions to prop up their own economies in the face of the downturn caused by the outbreak.

The WFP already planned to open an office in Ottawa and now Beasley sees it as more important than ever.

"This is an issue I run into all over the place, whether it's in the United States, Canada, or Germany, is a lot of taxpayers are saying, 'I got school problems in my own area, I've got road needs and bridge problems so why should I send money to Chad or to Yemen?'," he said. "We have to make the case why it's in everyone's economic and national security interest to support programs like what we're talking about."

And that is why, on Friday, Beasley won't be boarding a plane back to Rome, as he planned, after nearly two weeks of travel that included a tour of the devastated Syrian city of Idlib, the site of a massive spike of recent violence against innocent civilians. Instead, he is bound for Washington, where he will make the rounds meeting more potential donors and supporters.

"I raise money outside of Rome. So, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize my being quarantined, and people around the world die because I can't raise the money," Beasley said.

"Rome is known for its history, but you would never have thought it would be known for a pandemic."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press