The historic milestone comes at a time when many communities are facing the triple emergency of Covid-19, locust invasions and the climate crisis, which is intensifying catastrophic events and food insecurity.
A recent Lancet study found that without serious action, we risk 426 children dying every day because of extreme hunger.
Whether it is ensuring that all children get the quality food and nutrition services they need; or using planes, trains and automobiles to deliver personal protective equipment to health workers on the front line across the continent, polio elimination in Africa showed that the combination of political leadership, public and private financial resources, innovation and a cadre of hero health workers could achieve what was once deemed impossible.
This week, President Kagame of Rwanda will host the global summit of the African Green Revolution Forum. Building on the polio milestone, this marks a key moment in the effort to build resilient and equitable food systems across the African continent.
The event will see leaders from the public and private sectors unite around the need to scale up innovations that include crops that need less water and plants that capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And it will reinforce the notion that it is both feasible and desirable to sustainably increase food production while tackling the climate crisis.
As countries battle Covid-19 both to save lives and livelihoods, UN leaders have warned that growing food insecurity across low- and middle-income countries threatens to trigger a global food and nutrition emergency that would undermine any idea of a swift economic recovery.
Lockdowns and restrictions on workers’ movement have slowed down harvesting and other farm work. Markets have been disrupted due to Covid-19 outbreaks amongst labourers, and supply chains have been affected, which impacts everything from access to medicines to the distribution of fresh produce, including vegetables, meat and fish.
Beating polio in its final hiding places demanded an enormous push in research, development and logistics to ensure safe and effective vaccines reached every child. To tackle food insecurity, it is important to invest in agricultural research and development to scale up what is working and tackle bottlenecks in the food and agricultural supply chains to ensure safe food reaches the poorest and most marginalized communities.
A tiny microbe has humbled us all and yet has also provided us with an opportunity. By bridging the silos of health, agriculture, animal husbandry, and public policy-making, we can build back better through a ‘one health’ approach that drives a progressive food, health and environmental agenda to minimize the risk of food insecurity and prevent future zoonosis cross-over events.
Countries need support today. The polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin at the heart of the Cold War saw countries, including the US and the USSR, bridge ideological divides to accelerate the science. In a laudable international effort today, the new COVAX Facility has so far seen 172 countries come together to commit to the equitable global distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine to at-risk populations, specifically front-line health workers.
From tackling new disease outbreaks, such as Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to challenges in the food systems, science- and evidence-based solutions to improve resilience, with emphasis on country priorities and vulnerable groups, are part of an effective response in view of the growing potential for catastrophic shocks.
Ending wild polio in Africa was a momentous achievement that drew on national and international leadership, research, technical innovation, investment, community engagement and inspired health workers, among other important contributions. There is guidance here for efforts to strengthen health and food systems and address the pandemic’s threat to lives and livelihoods today.