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UN agriculture agency staff continue to strive for a better world amid Italy COVID-19 lockdown

FAO leads global efforts to defeat hunger and ensure that everyone has access to high-quality food. The agency is working with WHO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to assist countries and researchers in identifying potential animal hosts of the new coronavirus, though currently spread and development is due to human-to-human transmission. 

FAO experts advise on prevention and control measures to support veterinary services; they also are working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure readiness to rapidly detect the virus in animals as well as to conduct thorough surveillance of its circulation in the environment. 

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Above all, the UN agency has acted swiftly to implement measures so that its life-saving work can continue at all levels amid the pandemic. 

Charlotta Lomas, FAO’s Radio Coordinator, frequently contributes to UN News coverage. She flew out of Rome to her hometown, Melbourne, just hours before the lockdown took effect on 9 March and Australia implemented a travel ban against Italy. 

“I am temporarily teleworking in self-isolation, where I’m able to continue my duties in media relations, setting up interviews between FAO experts and journalists, and thanks to my professional recorder and digital editing software, I’m able to carry on producing audio content, including FAO’s podcast Target: Zero Hunger”, she said. 

New working methods 

Ms. Lomas normally works at FAO Headquarters, one of the largest buildings in Rome, with over 3,000 staff. The facility also regularly hosts major international meetings. 

Most staff have been working remotely since last Tuesday, although a skeleton team remains at the building to ensure critical business continuity.  It too will be reduced this week as FAO moves to complete telecommuting. 

The new arrangements mean new ways of working. Teams are using technology not only to get the job done, but also to keep in touch. 

FAO has provided staff with licenses for Zoom, the remote conferencing service, thus facilitating virtual meetings and collaboration. Colleagues are calling each other, instead of emailing, to discuss work matters but also to maintain human contact. Daily check-ins, weekly meetings and WhatsApp groups are also helping to foster team spirit. 

However, there is no denying the impact of COVID-19 on the UN agency.   

The outbreak has forced major meetings to be postponed, such as FAO’s Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, which was scheduled to take place in Bhutan late last month. 

Elly Barrett works for the Secretariat for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.  It governs the world’s conservation of, and access to, seeds. The Treaty Bureau will still bring together representatives from FAO’s five regional offices for a meeting in April, just not in Rome. 

“Instead, we are planning to hold it electronically for the first time in the 15-year history of the Treaty”, she said. “Due to time differences, it will be scheduled in shorter segments over a number of days”. 

In the meantime, Ms. Barrett has been using Zoom to collaborate with two colleagues from different departments on a joint proposal to establish seed banks in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“We were able to hold discussions, share screens and work on the text of the document together to finalize our proposal by the deadline,” she reported.     

FAO/Elly Barrett
The Colosseum in Rome illuminated in the colours of the Italian flag.

Quarantine, Italian style 

To prevent spread of the virus, Italy’s 60 million citizens are encouraged to stay at home and only go outdoors to pick up essential supplies and attend health appointments.  They can also step out to walk their dogs or exercise, but must do so alone. 

Leaving the house requires filling out a form declaring why you need to go outside and that you do not have COVID-19 symptoms, nor have you tested positive for the disease.  

The lockdown means no cars are on the street, but also no tourists as historic sites such as the Colosseum and the Parthenon are temporarily closed to visitors. 

Ms. Barrett described the atmosphere in Rome as intense, strange and surreal, but also surprisingly uplifting. 

“There is an atmosphere of uncertainty but also a sense of ‘we are all in this together’ and that everyone has to do their part. People understand that drastic measures are needed to ensure the best outcome for the country and the world”, she said. 

Although Italians have bunkered down, they have not abandoned their love of la dolce vita.   

Videos showing people holding impromptu evening concerts on their terraces have been widely shared on social media.  And last Saturday, Italians stood at their windows or on their balconies to applaud the country’s health workers who are on the frontline of response efforts. 

We’re all in this together 

That communal spirit is also reflective of the work carried out by FAO employees. Said Ms. Lomas, the radio journalist: “Teleworking has shown me that we can continue our work in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and can continue to strive for a better world, even during a global crisis such as a pandemic.”   

Ms. Barrett also looked at the bigger picture.  She said the current situation has reinforced the importance of a stable and sufficient food supply, and of helping the most vulnerable. 

“FAO’s work to ensure sustainable food systems and to achieve zero hunger is as important as ever, and must continue, despite the challenges that COVID-19 brings to our ways of working”, she said. 

“The organization has taken swift action to transition its workforce to remote working so that it can continue its critical work, and will be undertaking important new studies to help better position the world to manage the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on market chains and rural livelihoods”. 

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